Talking Audiences: You Can’t Reach Them from There

typewriter, iPad and televisionIn the transportation communications business there are always two critical questions that should start most conversations:

  • “What do you want to say?” (the key messages)
  • “Who do you want to hear it?”(the target audiences)

Once we figure out those two questions, the hard work begins outlining strategies and tactics that we will need to reach the target audiences. But, unfortunately, it is very common for our colleagues to jump to the tactic, without really considering those questions – what and whom?

“Let’s post this on Facebook.” “Can we tweet this?”

Sure you can do those things in just a few minutes. Post the link and move on to something else. But have you really accomplished the task – deliver the message to the key audience?

According to a July 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of American adults still do not use the internet at all. That’s roughly 36.8 million American adults that are not reading your Tweet or Facebook update. Some don’t go online because they simply have no interest. Others think it is too complicated, or in some cases they think they’re too old to learn. And, nearly 1-in-5 people (nearly 7 million) who never use the internet say that they cannot afford the expense of computer or internet service.

That is a lot of people who might never have a chance to read your social media messages.

Americans’ evolving news consumption habits only make the task of delivering the message to the right audience even more challenging. The 2015 State of the News Media found that more Americans than ever are getting their news from the “social web” of Facebook and Twitter. And while daily and Sunday newspaper circulation continued its long slide in the last year, down another 3 percent, the local and national TV news programs saw their viewership grow.

Indeed, today more than ever before there is not one single tactic that is going to get to everyone you might need to reach. As new technologies enter the practice, they never completely replace what existed previously. For instance, we still use pencils in a world that is seemingly dominated by smartphones. The ramifications of that concept for communications professions is significant.

While we keep one eye focused on the next communication trend, it is imperative we understand and call upon the traditional tools of the trade. Because, like my dad use to tell me about automobile maintenance, you have to have the right tool for the job. And, in some situations, you cannot reach that key target audience with another tweet no matter how hard you try.

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About Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.
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6 Responses to Talking Audiences: You Can’t Reach Them from There

  1. Susan Sharp says:

    Another great piece, Lloyd. I’d only modify somewhat one of your two questions. Rather than “what do you want to say?” I think it’s more important to ask, “What do I want to say and how do I shape it in a way that the audience will be receptive to it?” Surely not as quick and clever but it addresses what I find is the essential problem in transportation communications — we talk about what we want to say without first spending the time to get into our audience’s head and understand their issues, their concerns, and their hot buttons. That leaves us talking at them, regardless of the medium chosen.

    • Lloyd Brown says:

      Susan, good point. That discussion didn’t quite fit into this blog post, but you’re absolutely right. We spend so much time talking at our audiences without understanding two important things: What do they NEED to know and what do they WANT to know? Thanks for the comment. Really appreciate it. – ldb

  2. Fay Fleming says:

    Hi Lloyd! In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, I think it’s also critical to discuss for what reasons are we communicating, how does it align with our agency strategy and WHAT are we trying to achieve, in terms of what is our call to action.

    For example, Be Safe is a core value at MoDOT that we try to resonate across our suite of communication channels. In the case of work zone safety, a message about slowing down ties into our core value, aligns with our strategy of decreasing accidents and fatalities and keeping our employees safe. Being clear about what we are trying to achieve (i.e. modifying consumer behavior and employee attentiveness to safety protocols) then helps us to target the right audience niche with a customized message while using a variety of channels.

    Thanks for highlighting this issue and stimulating our discussion!

  3. David Brown says:

    The other critical point is “what do you want them to do?” This is critical in road safety communications. Being shocked by a TV ad is not the point if they don’t change their behaviour (Australian spelling!!). Quite often we give the message “Drive safely” but what does that mean? There are times when we just want people to just be aware of something and a bit of humour but it is to the end that people will be open to other messages and/or give some feedback.

    • Lloyd Brown says:

      David, you’re exactly right. How often do we see a TV spot that looks “cool” but it is hard to know what the commercial is promoting. Thanks for the great comment.

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