‹ Tutorials

What is audience understanding research?

Audience research is any research conducted on a specific sample in order to find out about their attitudes, behaviours and habits - i.e. to understand them.

What is audience market research?

Audience research is any research conducted on a specific sample in order to find out about their attitudes, behaviours and habits – i.e. to understand them. The sample can be made up of any group of interest – whether this is nationally representative or focused on a particular age, gender, region, ethnicity, or specific characteristics they have (e.g. gamers, those who buy from a specific brand, etc.).  

The purpose of audience research is to answer a range of business questions, such as to find out what interests them, who influences them, what problems they have, what they think of existing products or how they feel about branding and service. Audience research can also help identifying which channels are used and how to best target those individuals.
Ultimately, audience understanding research helps companies communicate with their audience and integrate their views and opinions into their products and services.

The difference between audience research and market research

Quite often ‘audience research’ is confused with ‘market research’. The main difference between the two is that audience research is conducted on specific audience segments (people) to obtain information about them.
On the other hand, market research is conducted to gather information about the market within which the product or service aimed at the audience operates in. It can include competitors, pricing, PEST analysis etc. However, the phrase ‘market research’ is commonly used as the term to encompass both types of work.

Audience understanding vs audience research

Audience understanding and audience research is, in effect, one and the same. It can come in many guises with audience understanding being the bed rock of techniques such as customer discovery programmes, customer insight programmes, influencer mapping, UX or customer experience reviews, innovation research and so on. 

Reviews of non-users is also considered to be audience research or understanding.

Importance of audience research

  • Deeper understanding
    Conducting audience research will enable you to get a better understanding of your audience, which in turn will help you connect with your customers, communicated better with them and help your company grow. It enables you to be customer-centric, rather than product led in your thinking, for example.
  • Decision making
    Audience research can help you prioritise how best to meet their needs or decide who to focus on, how to reach them, or what to offer them.
  • Proving hypotheses
    It can also help provide evidence for marketing claims that you may want to make but (as yet) have no evidence to support.

Defining the audience research problem

When designing an audience research project, it’s always useful to distil your business problem into a single sentence and check that each question goes some way to answering it.

Ask yourself the relevant questions: “what am I ultimately trying to achieve? What do I need to know to make a difference to what I’m already doing or I’m aware of?

Matching the audience with the right questions

It is crucial to ask your sample audience the right questions if you want to get relevant, useable outcomes.

There are a few demographics to keep in mind when conducting audience research, some of which include: age, gender, education, income, region etc. They tend to be objective labels, which are often called standard demographic questions.
Demographic questions are often used at the beginning of the survey to make sure you are talking to the right people, excluding those considered not relevant.

Knowing these traits and characteristics will help you make sure you’re asking a relevant group of people.  
For instance, if an independent school asks those who don’t have children about their views on school entrance criteria and the appeal of extracurricular activities, it will give irrelevant results. That group will not be making decisions about which school their children should attend; hence they’ll end up with the opinions of people who have little influence of the final decision and design marketing collateral to appeal to the wrong people.

Finally, aside from ensuring a relevant sample, demographics are also frequently used during analysis to dissect and compare results, and narrow down the sample into smaller groups (e.g. those with one child vs. those with multiple).

Choosing the right audience research questions

There are generally two types of research:

  1. One that is more historical and reflective, looking at ‘why’ and ‘how’ something happened
  2. Then there is predictive research, which looks at the ‘what ifs’ and possible futures

With historical research, more descriptive and analytical research design is needed.  Whereas with predictive research, questions need to be designed in order to connect A with B and make associations which often requires more stimulus and/or qualitative questioning techniques.  

Examples of audience research questions

Every project is of course unique, but there is often commonality among the themes explored. Besides demographic descriptors, typical areas might be:

  • What is the audience trying to achieve? E.g. escapism, time saving, knowledge etc.
  • What are their pain points, or unmet needs?
  • How does the product or service fit into their lives?
  • What are some of the key attitudes and behaviours that differentiate them?
  • What prompts the need (for the product or service)?
  • What has been their experience of a specific situation or product?
  • Who or what do they turn to for information or advice?
  • Where do they look for said information?

Audience research methodologies

  1. Primary research – First hand research conducted by you or your agency
  2. Secondary research – Reviewing information from sources already published, also called desk research.  Data journalism is a form of this.  

Types of primary and secondary research

Quantitative audience research – Research focusing on statistics and facts rather than emotions, for instance questionnaires/surveys.

  • Original information – typically collected in ad hoc online or telephone surveys, but can also be longitudinal in nature, collecting answers to comparable questions over time. Exit interviews, eye tracking, diary studies, large hall tests and omnibus surveys are further examples of ad hoc or longitudinal surveys.
  • Transactional data reviews – this could be identification of behavioural segmentation patterns within website visits and e-commerce transactions.  Typically the data is collected without the overt questioning style of a survey. However, the data collected within registration databases (for example) are more of a survey style of data collection. Transactional information is often internal information held by a brand and not directly collected for audience research purposes.
  • Web analytics – Similar to transactional information and good for monitoring and tracking online behaviour. Often tends to be held outside or on the edge of brand’s domain signposting paths to digital interactions.

Qualitative audience research – More open research in the form of telephone, face to face or online interviews, often focusing more on feelings and emotions and the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind things, rather than collecting numbers. These techniques are more in depth compared to surveys.

  • Focus groups or individual in-depth interviews (IDIs) – This consists of a group of people or an individual sharing their thoughts and information about a service, product, campaign or a topic. This is particularly useful as body language can be observed and offers the opportunity for an open, free-flowing conversation.
  • Case studies – An ethnographic method for studying the complex interactions between an individual, product or system within in the context of their environment. Although case studies are particularly useful in situations where a variety of research methods are needed, a disadvantage is that case studies inevitably rely on the interpretation of the researcher, hence potentially affecting the validity of the findings.

Social media analytics – A post on social media can reach millions of followers within seconds, hence observing the analytics of your social media feed is useful.  This can be both quantitative and qualitative in nature.  Quantitative in terms of the sheer scale (an example of big data), and qualitative in terms of ‘free range’ responses to any given question.

Bulletin boards or chat room/forums – This can also be both quantitative and qualitative in nature.  Quantitative in virtue of length of programme or number of members, and qualitative in terms of ‘free range’ responses to any open questions.

How to choose the right audience research method for your project

In order to achieve valuable audience research, it is important to first think about what you are trying to find out and what type of data you will need to present useful insights i.e. qualitative, quantitative, ethnographic or observational.

  • Qualitative data – if a deep understanding in a small number of areas is needed from the research, or the topic is new (or new to you) then it’s best to use qualitative techniques such as: focus groups or individual in-depth interviews
  • Quantitative data – if strength of opinion is needed then its’s best to use quantitative techniques such as: online, telephone and face to face surveys, postal surveys, email surveys or web analytics
  • Ethnographic or observational data – if usability or service use is being studied then ethnographic or observational methods should be used: diary studies, task-focused scenarios, accompanied browsing or user generating scenarios

Sampling techniques

Picking the right sampling technique is crucial in order to get respondents who are representative of the people you are trying to understand or influence. There are several sampling techniques that you can choose from, of which we have detailed five below:

  1. Random sampling – everyone in the target population having an equal chance of being picked
  2. Stratified sampling – this is slightly more complicated; the researcher figures out the different groups of people that make up the target population and then identifies the percentage needed to make up the sample in relation to the groups
  3. Opportunity sampling – this method is based on convenience; the sample is made as you find people who are willing to take part
  4. Systematic sampling – this sample is created in an orderly manner, for instance picking every 6th person on a list
  5. Quota sampling – this is probably the most pragmatic and commonly used approach. It’s a form of stratified sampling that doesn’t necessarily take into account the potential universe size. It selects a minimum or target number of respondents within sub groups, e.g. different job functions, different geographies, regardless of the size of the potential universe.  Assuming the minimum number is large enough this enables comparisons between the groups, as well as observing overall trends when the data is combined   

Avoiding sampling bias

Sampling bias can be created when certain individuals are more or less likely to be picked. This can often happen if the wrong sampling method has been chosen, or you don’t have access to the full sample universe. There are two ways you can reduce such bias:

  1. Avoid using opportunity sampling
  2. Define your target population before choosing your sampling methods, so use the stratified sampling (or quota) approach

Audience research advantages

The main strength of audience research is that you are confident that the campaign or claims that you have published are directly relevant to your target audience, as they are from the demographics that you are aiming towards. Hence, you are at some level assured that, for instance, the product or service that you are introducing or have modified will be well received by the target population.

Another positive is that it helps to somewhat confirm thoughts, emotions and general ideas of your audience. Maintaining a relationship with your customer base is crucial and audience research provides you with the feedback that you require to meet customer needs.

The range of audience research techniques is an advantage as it allows you to completely tailor the research to your need. If you want more detailed information, you can go for qualitative methods, whereas if you want statistics then you can go for quantitative.

Finally, depending on the method you choose, audience research can be very time-efficient.

Audience research disadvantages

As successful as audience research can be, it does have a few limitations. One such limitation might be not defining the audience sufficiently enough.  As a result you may end up with respondents who are not fully relevant or representative of your target audience. Although you will receive valid results, the findings will not be representative of your target audience and thus will be of limited, or no use.

It’s also essential to be clear from the outset about the research aims and what you want to get out of the research. Without this you get carried away with the ‘while we are there let’s ask them this’. In this case you will again end up with valid results but it might not give you any usable insight, rather it might replicate what you already know or didn’t need to know in the first place.  Adding extra ‘want to know’ questions also risks diluting the respondents concentration (and thus response quality). Good, firm stakeholder management can be an antidote to this, as can the ruthless application to each question of ‘so what if I know this?’

Audience understanding research checklist

  • Review completed questionnaires – having a quick read through the questionnaire is always useful, either to make last minute changes or just for the interviewer to familiarise themselves with the questions. For each question set ask yourself:
    • ‘Does it answer the brief’, and
    • ‘So what if I know this?’
  • Analysing focus group / in-depth interviews – when undertaking such research, it’s harder to analyse data since you’re having conversations. So, it’s best to make as many notes as possible during the sessions and then finish making the notes straight after the session as to not forget any important details
  • Time for analysis –  audience research has quite a few steps from choosing the sample to writing a report etc. Therefore, it’s crucial to leave ample time to complete the research.  The best insight happens when there is enough time for reflection.

And here are a few more things to think about when setting up an audience understanding project:

Keep the objectives focusedInclude lots of ‘nice to have’ questions
Check what internal knowledge you have before embarking on a new programmeForget about the non-user or potential future customers
See what you can learn through an internet searchExpect to do a good thorough job in a matter of days or possibly weeks
Keep the questions as clear as possible, avoid any jargon
Test research documents before launching the programme fully

Table 1 – Do’s and don’ts of audience understanding research

Audience research in practice

Audience research is a huge part of business’ strategy and is used widely across all sectors to improve their brand. A few examples include:

Lego – After research, the company found that just 9% of the consumers were female, which resulted in them developing products that would be more appealing to girls.

McDonald’s – Following research, it was identified that a common question was regarding serving healthy or organic food. They then decided to incorporate healthier options and launched campaigns to show where their meat is reared.

Nest – Nest is another innovative company which bases its decisions on customer surveys, asking questions on functioning of current products and how they can improve them.

Flight Club – A modern experiential social club who informed both its offering and launch strategy through audience understanding

Audience research is essential to stay relevant to your customer base and to be an innovative and successful company.

Get topical tips, insights and more delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about the latest international business sentiments, behaviours and plans to stay one step ahead of your competition.