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.

13 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. And while we’re about it, King’s Cross Station is apparently a plural is it?

  2. Piers says:

    King’s Cross Station is a physical object, so it isn’t sending any messages to anyone. The team at King’s Cross Station are sending this message, so it’s reasonable to use the plural. In this case ‘King’s Cross Station’ is shorthand for ‘the people who run King’s Cross Station’.

    People speak about apparently singular entities such as businesses as if they’re plural – ‘Sainsburys are now stocking X’ – because there’s a genuine logic to it. The fact that it breaks a grammatical ‘rule’ is neither here nor there.

    Any writer who insists on always treating a business as a singular entity will struggle to write well, if you ask me. Horses for course though. It depends on what works best for the brand, and the context.

    But I totally agree with everything else being said here. It’s a fabulous example of totally ignoring the needs of the people you’re pretending to serve.

  3. Clare Lynch says:

    I’m not a prescriptivist on the question of whether a business or team should be singular or plural. But I do think “are” just kinda sounds wrong here, in a way it doesn’t with the name of a business, especially one that sounds a bit pluraly, like “Sainsburys”. I just don’t hear the idea of a “team” in the word “station”. Like you say, go with whatever works best for the brand. I hate the idea that a station is a brand, but I do think a singular verb would work better here.

  4. Mary says:

    Using the plural with King’s Cross Station, or indeed any other company or organisation, is deeply irritating. You wouldn’t do it in the passive (King’s Cross Station are being refurbished) so why in the active? I take the point that it isn’t the actual, physical station that is (are?) committed, but if you want to stress it’s the people who run the station, say something like ‘the people who run King’s Cross are committed’. Even if you said ‘The team at King’s Cross’ it would be singular as ‘team’ represents and entity, even though it’s a collection of people.

    It’s quite possible to say ‘King’s Cross station is crap at customer care. We are very sorry,’ and use the singular and plural in the same sentence.

    Don’t get me started.

  5. Mary says:

    Didn’t check that for typos .

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    Great point about the passive, Mary!

  7. Paul Eveleigh says:

    Know your audience. Start by talking with them.

  8. Piers says:

    Mary, nice point, but it’s not really the passive that’s the clincher there, it’s that you’re talking about the physical station, which is obviously a singular thing. But you might say ‘King’s Cross are being sued for their terrible customer care’, and that’s also a passive. The steel and bricks of the station are hardly responsible for anyone’s customer care.

    It’s a bit like a singular collective noun like ‘audience’. You might say ‘The audience was silent’ but you’d definitely say ‘The audience were whispering among themselves’. No one would say ‘The audience was whispering to itself’.

  9. Clare Lynch says:

    I’m not sure I would ever say ‘King’s Cross are being sued for their terrible customer care’, just as I wouldn’t say ‘Waterloo are being sued’ or ‘London Bridge are…’. The idea of a physical place being a team doesn’t work for me – it just sounds plain wrong to my ear. It’s the difference between saying ‘Sainsburys are open’ and ‘the shop are open’ – one works, one doesn’t. The problem started the moment they decided the message should come from ‘King’s Cross’ rather than ‘we’ (not to mention everything else that’s wrong with the piece).

  10. Mary says:

    The fact that it actually says ‘King’s Cross Station are…” is even worse than saying ‘King’s Cross are..”. But I agree with Claire, it just sounds clunky. I’m a firm believer that you should read out loud what you write before it’s set in stone, and change anything that sounds wrong, even if it is strictly grammatically correct. Captain Kirk obviously did that before he filed his log; imagine how wrong it would have been if generations of Trekkies had boldly to go where no man had gone before.

  11. Thank you for this insightful article, brilliant! We always need to start with the audience, and the relevance and usefulness of information is just as important as the actual words and sentences.

    There are so many things to think about when writing accessible information, I’ve developed a resource called the Accessible Information Ladder to help identify all the factors

    I know King’s Cross very well, I’ll be there on Thursday, I’ll look out for the Customer Information Point.

  12. “Useful information” is the ugly sister of “Important information”, which means “irrelevant drivel our lawyers insisted we send and you can throw away unread”.

  13. Clare Lynch says:

    Exactly, Patrick! Just as a ‘Polite notice’ is invariably anything but!

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