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Why You Need to Know Your Audience - by Dennis List


The Arab Press Network (APN)
interviewed Dennis List, author of Know Your Audience: A Practical Guide to Media Research and founder of Audience Dialogue, in 2005, about the value and role of audience research for newspapers, and the insights he gives may be useful if you are considering the 'why' of audience research - do we really need to do it?

APN: Why is audience research important for newspapers?
Dennis List: Some newspapers don’t think they need audience research. “We have circulation data,” they say. “That is what really matters, because it is circulation that provides income.” That is true, of course, but it’s only half the picture. 

Think of it in terms of cause and effect. A newspaper might make some change - in editorial content, distribution, or another area. That is the cause. The end-effect is the circulation, but that is a long-delayed effect. There is a lot of evidence from surveys that people get tired of something - including a newspaper - long before they stop using it. If regular audience research had been done beforehand, the decreasing level of reader dissatisfaction could have been tracked. In short, one advantage of audience research is that it can reduce the time-lag between perceptions and actions. 

A simpler and more general reason for doing audience research is that understanding the audience helps journalists and editors keep in touch with the needs and abilities of the readers.

APN: What are some common misconceptions newspapers have about their audience? 
Dennis List: One of the most common misconceptions, particularly in developing countries, is an assumption that the audience is as well-informed as the journalists. What the journalists sometimes don’t realize is that they are among the most highly literate people in their country. For example, a few years ago I organized some research in Papua New Guinea, where the official language is English, but most people speak Pidgin or a tribal language. Even for people who understand English, it’s a second language for all of them. The journalists’ command of English was most impressive; they could have worked on newspapers in any English-speaking country. However, the audience research found that most of the audience had great trouble understanding the nuances of the reports: the journalists learned that the level of English was too advanced for their readers.

Another misconception is about the regularity of reading. It is all too easy to assume that if you have a circulation of 100,000 every day, it’s the same 100,000 readers. Often, in fact, there is a large pool of occasional readers, who might only see the newspaper once a week – if that. This suggests that journalists should recap stories, in case some readers haven’t caught up with the previous days’ news. 

And that brings us to another misconception – not so common, but I have noticed it often. Again, it’s more an implicit assumption than a clear misconception: that readers of a newspaper don’t get news from other sources. In many countries, radio is the most common source of formal news. Because of the frequency of radio news, many people who read news in a newspaper will not be seeing it for the first time. They will already know the headlines, but they are probably reading the newspaper because they want more detail than brief radio bulletins supply. They don’t care so much that it is yesterday’s news rather than today’s. They often want to understand not simply what has happened but why and how it has happened.

APN: What are the concrete benefits of better understanding your audience?
Dennis List: The most concrete benefit is that if the journalists understand the audience, the audience will better understand the stories. Readers will be provided with information that is relevant to them, and that will help them in making decisions – in any area from the practicalities of daily life to deciding who to vote for in a national election. 

APN: What are some common traps those newspapers wishing to conduct audience research can fall into?
Dennis List: One of the most common traps I’ve encountered, for newspapers and other media that actually do conduct audience research, is to put all their eggs into one basket. 

They spend a lot of money on one large survey, leaving no budget for carrying out a follow-up survey. An audience survey will usually raise as many questions as it answers. For example, “So 29 percent of our readers never look at the front page? Why could that be?” Samples don’t need to be large, and a research program consisting of a series of small-scale studies is usually more helpful than one big study.

A second trap is to underestimate the amount of work needed in a survey. I’ve seen many organizations decide to do their own surveys. After all, it seems easy enough to write a questionnaire and get some people to answer it. Usually what they do – if they get that far – is create a questionnaire with ambiguous questions, and gather an unrepresentative sample. But then they have to analyze the data. They haven’t realized how much work is involved, nor the degree of rigor needed in the clerical work. The result is that a lot of do-it-yourself surveys are never analyzed properly, and all the work that went into them has been wasted.

APN: Is it possible to conduct good audience research inexpensively? 
Dennis List: Audience research can be divided into two broad areas: (a) measuring the audience, and (b) understanding the audience. An audience is normally measured in order to convince potential advertisers that the newspaper is worth advertising in. As advertisers tend to be skeptical of such claims, it is usually necessary for a respected market research company to conduct an audience measurement survey to determine how many readers you have. This is expensive – though it is also worthwhile, if the advertising revenue gained outweighs the cost of the survey. 

To understand the audience is much cheaper. The less you already know, the cheaper it is. I’ve developed several low-cost methods of understanding audiences, that are easy to carry out and also provide high-quality data. The consensus group technique, described in detail in my book "Know Your Audience" as well as on the Audience Dialogue website, can be easily learned and has few pitfalls. Even a program of semi-structured interviews with readers can provide a wealth of information about audiences. Often only about 30 interviews are needed, each lasting an hour or so. 

APN: What kind of problems can newspapers encounter when they conduct an unprofessional survey? 
Dennis List: A common problem with unprofessional surveys is that they often obtain an unrepresentative sample. Sometimes this is done for economic reasons (by survey companies that give attractively cheap quotations), and sometimes out of ignorance. This is almost always a problem with informal research. There are many ways to gather a biased sample, and most of those ways result in overestimating the audience size. For a survey to be accurate, everybody in the population must have the same probability of taking part. If this can’t be achieved – as is often the case – you at least need to be able to estimate the likely size and direction of any error. 

APN: Finally, in what ways can the information in your book on be used by newspapers in practice?
Dennis List: The book describes a wide range of audience research methods, ranging from large-scale formal surveys to informal methods such as the consensus group and semi-structured interviews. Different situations will require different approaches to research. In large cities with a strong advertising focus newspapers with large circulations can use the information in the book to understand how audience measurement is done. They will probably commission local research companies to do the research, but with a good understanding of the methods involved they will be able to make better-informed selection of the many options for audience measurement surveys. 

At the other extreme, for low-circulation newspapers in poor areas, the focus on audience research will probably be more on helping readers improve their lives in some way. Why do people read newspapers? To put it very generally, it must be to improve their lives in some small way - even if only from the pleasure of reading. Otherwise, why else would they bother with a newspaper? This is particularly true in developing countries where printed materials are scarce, and books are expensive. In consensus groups in Africa, several times participants have mentioned that newspapers help to educate them in public affairs. 

For that, understanding the audience is more relevant than counting them, and the simple, low-cost methods such as consensus groups are something that they can conduct themselves for very little cost. 

Newspapers can use this type of research to help them communicate better with their readers. For example, in a consensus group, it is possible to show participants some recent articles, and check whether the messages they received from those articles were those intended by the reporters. Often journalists implicitly assume that their readers are as well-informed as they are about political issues, with the result that readers sometimes don't understand the full context of an article. This type of approach, focusing on actual content, has the potential to make newspapers more accessible to readers, and thus improve their lives in a small way.

The interview transcript was taken from the article published by APN on its website on 25 October 2005, click here to read it.

For more information on audience research, audience research methods for media, visit the Know Your Audience webpage here

LInks to other relevant pages:

Print Audience Measurement

Glossary of Media Research Terms

General findings about media audiences

Quick Guide to Audience Research - A free guide we offer on this website that emphasises more the 'why' of research, reasons for research, rather than 'how' to do it.