Adapting your content to suit your audience

A fundamental activity, when it comes to communication, lies in adjusting your content so that it can have maximum impact on your different audiences.

You can see this in action at the moment in the way governments around the world are trying to influence the behaviour of their populations to manage the spread of Covid-19.  It starts with a central set of messages delivered by leaders through press conferences and other news briefings, and then those messages are adapted in various ways to reach audiences as varied as schoolchildren, the elderly, the owners of small business, the leaders of larger ones, and so on.

The bottom line is there is no one size fits all with communication, so the first step is to divide your audience into four segments based on demographic factors (e.g. seniority, type of job), geographical factors, psychographic factors (to do with culture and values) and behavioural factors (e.g. how they access information and make their decisions).

We’ll talk in the future about cultural elements as this is a rich and well-researched area. For now, let’s look at what exactly you might adjust in terms of your content.

We’ll talk in the future about cultural elements as this is a rich and well-researched area. For now, let’s look at what exactly you might adjust in terms of your content.

  1. Tone. The tone of your content is the most obvious place to start when thinking about flexing to your audience, because people really notice when you get it wrong. After all, people can be alienated by the studied, stiff neutrality of the legal update, or the slick jargon of the corporate brochure, but also by the goofy familiarity of the Innocent smoothie bottle. So think about the relative need for formality and linguistic precision. Think too about whether to say “I” or “we”, whether to address the reader or listener directly, which vernacular to use (is it a house, a home, a dwelling or a domicile). And finally think about whether to use the active or the passive voice – “I will get on with things as quickly as I can” versus “These actions will be undertaken with maximum promptness”.
  2. Existing knowledge. The moment you start telling people something they know is the moment you irritate them; equally, assuming knowledge is risky and can be equally irritating. And finally, some repetition is important – “Wash your hands”, Stay at home”. The goal, then, is to work out what people know already, use signposting and framing to map out what you intend to cover so they can take a view on whether it’s relevant to them, and work hard on pointing people them in the right direction to fill in any knowledge gaps they might have. Equip and empower them, don’t bore or overload them.
  3. Complexity, detail and length. As a rule of thumb, we should pitch all general communication at a level where it is easily understood by a teenager, for example, without them having to work too hard. The Economist magazine is a very good benchmark for this. At the same time, of course, some communication needs to be more complex, it needs to be denser with information. The Harvard Law Review is hard to read for many of us – that doesn’t men they’re bad at writing! So test your communication on your target audience, ask them if they understood it or whether they had to re-read any of it or ask, if spoken, if they stopped listening while working out what you meant. You might also put your words into an online readability test website – and there’s a few of them – to see how well you score.
  4. Stories, examples, data. Telling stories that different audiences can relate to is vital to effective communication, as any successful US presidential candidate could tell you, including Barack Obama and Donald Trump. This is the element in your communication that you will most want to keep adjusting, swapping out proof points and anecdotes to keep you communication fresh and targeted.
  5. Call to action. Finally, of course, your ask of different audiences will vary. Because of this, too often communicators leave out the call to action altogether, but we always advice against this. If we’re bought into what you’re telling us, let us get involved, let us do something – make the most of our commitment to help and support. Sticking with the political world as an example, sometimes it’s not about asking someone to vote – it’s about asking them to get others into the polling booth.