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Determining your Audience

What is a ‘target audience’?


Article by Colin Battson FISTC

Colin Battson began his career as an Aircraft Antenna Design Engineer with Standard Telephones & Cables Ltd, following a student apprenticeship. Seven years later he embarked on a second career in technical writing, beginning as a contract author on-site with Marconi Space Division. In the 30 years or so since then, his work has embraced a wide range of disciplines and topics, whilst employed for the most part by Technical Publications Consultancy companies.

How this chapter is structured

What is a ‘target audience’?

This section explains the meaning of ‘target audience’; the readers of your document or publication, whether paper or on-line.

Why you need to identify the target audience

This section explains why it is important, not just to the audience (the readers and/or users) but to you as the author of the work.

When should you research the audience?

This section explains why it is important and most cost-effective to do your research as soon as possible, preferably before a word has been written.

How to determine the audience

This section summarises some of the common ways of achieving your goal, and compares the feasibility of the different methods in different circumstances.

How knowing the audience affects your work

This section describes the advantages in cost-savings, productivity and other more subtle ways, that writing targeted material can bring.

The effects of missing the target!

This section covers some of the problems that can be caused by a poorly-targeted piece of work.

Summary

This section is a round-up of the key points covered.

What is a ‘target audience’?

The generally-accepted meaning of the term ‘target audience’ is the typical reader or user of the work being produced or to be produced.

Although it is possible that anyone at all may read the subject material, it is important to target the style and level of the content at the anticipated majority audience group.

Taking two extreme examples of publications and associated audiences:

  1. A first reading book for (say) five year old schoolchildren: This would typically contain lots of colour to make it visually appealing, it would probably have a picture to complement every word or short group of words, and it would comprise a fairly small number of pages (short attention span)
  2. A User Guide for an application software package: Although colour might be used, many such User Guides are black/white only. Language and terminology would be aimed at a computer-literate person; perhaps someone assumed to have a basic understanding of Windows techniques. It is likely the document would be of the order of 50 to 150 pages, sub-divided into chapters, and undoubtedly would include features such as Contents List, Glossary, Index, etc. It could also include one or more Appendices containing reference material.

These two examples demonstrate two very different target audiences. However, it is often necessary to define the audience to a much tighter definition. Factors which might require consideration for Example 2 above could include:

For every document or publication, the target audience can and should be determined if the reader / user is to obtain maximum benefit from it.

Why you need to identify the target audience

What are the primary reasons for determining the anticipated target audience for a proposed new document or publication?

There are clearly advantages to be gained, both for the users and for the author(s), if the document produced is aimed precisely at the correct target audience.

Advantages to the users:

Advantages to the author(s):

When should you research the audience?

The right time to do your research is as early as possible!

Because it is so important to determine the audience level in order to set the depth and scope of the content, it is clearly better to have that information before a word is written.

You may not always enjoy the luxury of that situation (for example, work may already have been started by someone else before your involvement; perhaps engineers have produced a draft, and so on).

However, if you are able to do the research at a very early stage, that is most definitely the time to do it.

If you are producing the subject document(s) or publication(s) for a client company, your costed quotation could be significantly affected by having taken into account the target audience specification. Indeed, it could be a major factor in whether you or your company secure the work at all.

HINT: If you are tendering for the work in competition with others, do ensure that your target audience definition is included in your quotation. It will help your prospective client compare ‘like with like’ and will show them that you have actively considered the target audience in your document design.

If you don't do your research early enough, you could be facing major comments on your draft submission, failure to meet project deadlines, plus potential loss of reputation and future business as a consequence. On top of all that, if the badly or untargeted document does get as far as publication and distribution to end users, you and your client are likely to incur the wrath of the users once the inadequacies of the document are realised.

Remember that it's not just the style and depth of treatment that have to be addressed; it is also important to ensure consistent use of approved terminology. Continuing with the software User Guide theme, use of the terms ‘window’ and ‘dialog’ should be consistent. Similarly, is data entered into a ‘field’ in a window, or into a ‘dialog box’? Does the user ‘select’ something in a window or ‘click on it’?

Attention to this level of detail is part of audience determination, and should not be neglected when researching your audience. Get hold of existing documents whenever possible, and solicit comments on those from your client. You need to know if the existing material is considered to be satisfactory. If it is not, ensure that you take on board any general criticisms which could affect the approach to the planned new document(s).

In the case of software publications, a good User Guide can save the company a great deal in Help Desk and similar support costs. The converse is also true. Although targeting the audience correctly is just one of many factors involved, its importance in that context is clear.

How to determine the audience

You know that you need to determine the target audience, and you know that you need to do that as soon as possible, but how is it actually done?

There are various methods employed; not all will fit every situation, and sometimes that intangible called ‘experience’ plays a major role.

However, for those who perhaps don't have the depth of experience needed, here are some of the methods used:

Informal:

Formal:

The more of the above you are able to use, the more precise will be your target audience determination. You may well find that you will obtain conflicting information as you build up your ‘picture’ of the typical end user. That is to be expected and should be resolved before work commences.

Different individuals - even those in the same category (e.g. end users) - are bound to have preferences not shared by all. Your goal is to review all the information you obtain, then to finalise the requirements by further discussion - probably with your client, but perhaps also with a nominated representative of the end users.

Whatever happens, make every effort to define and document the agreed audience parameters before writing is started; re-work is a waste of time and money!

How knowing the audience affects your work

Having made the effort and invested the time involved in determining the target audience, you should be ready to start preparation of the subject document(s), ideally with the results of your audience determination activities formally agreed with all interested parties.

If you are in this position (and you should be!), then you can begin writing with some degree of confidence, and can expect that the draft(s) will:

If you are able to achieve this pleasurable state of affairs, the results are likely to be:

The effects of missing the target!

If you don't properly research the audience requirements, the consequent problems are likely to be the negation of all the points listed as benefits in the previous section.

Your own job satisfaction is guaranteed to be reduced to an all-time low (‘How can I have got it so wrong?’) and you probably won't be offered any further work from the same source.

That sums up your side of the issue, how about the client and end-users?

Summary

Important key points to remember:

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