Audience analysis: are you talking to the right reader?

anonymous cartoon people one with question mark for face

Audience analysis should be your first step in any copywriting job. Because if you don't know who you're writing for, chances are your message won't resonate with the reader that really matters.

Writing for the wrong reader is the mistake I see clients make most often - especially if they work for large organisations. Most often, that wrong reader is the internal “stakeholder”. The boss or colleague who you look to to pay your wage, champion your career or back your strategy. But unless your goal is to nab that pay rise, secure that promotion or win sign-off for that strategy, you’re writing it all wrong. And I guarantee the results will be muddle-headed and unpersuasive.

What happens when you skip the audience analysis stage

Here’s a great example of a writer talking to the wrong audience. It's from a poster at King’s Cross railway station in central London.

Let’s pass over the horrific typo and creative approach to subject verb agreement that scream “we don’t care”. Instead, let's look at what this poster says. Here's my interpretation:

There’s a customer information point around here somewhere. We’re going to tell you it’s out there, but we won’t say where. You’ll just have to work that out for yourself. In your wheel chair.

And this, readers, is billed as “useful information”. But if I’m disabled, what do I care about more? A load of self-congratulatory guff about your “commitment” to helping me?

Or actually, y’know, being helped. With some directions. Or a map. Or a telephone. Or a real-life person whose job is to get me on my train on time.

(Actually, the only vaguely useful information – “if you need help call this number” – is buried in a tiny font in the bottom right-hand corner. Not great if you're partially sighted.)

Audience analysis: it's about asking the right questions

With a little bit of audience analysis, the writer of this poster could have avoided talking to the wrong reader. All he or she needed to do was ask a few questions before sitting down to write. Questions like:

  • Who should this poster be aimed at?

  • What situation are they likely to be in when they read it?

  • What problems or challenges do they face?

  • What are the possible solutions to those problems or challenges?

  • What information are they looking for?

  • What does it feel like to be my target reader in the context of a busy railway station?

For more on the questions you need to ask yourself, check out Five essential questions to ask before you even start writing.

Why did this writer get it so terribly wrong?

If you're interested, I can tell you exactly what went on with that terrible poster. It’s all down to a recent-ish piece of legislation in UK law called the Equality Act 2010. This act says a business providing services to the public must do everything it can to make sure disabled people receive the same level of service as those who are more abled.

So what this poster is actually saying is:

Dear Legal

Look! Look! We’re complying with the Equality Act 2010 and here’s proof!

Oh, and by the way, for the rest of you, there’s an information point around here somewhere. Good luck.

The lesson? Focus on the needs of your end reader, not the internal audience. And do some basic audience analysis before you even sit down to write.