This book is designed for people working in communications organizations: radio and TV stations, newspapers and other print media, arts companies, orchestras - any group that communicates with the public. Whenever I refer to "publishers," "media," or "stations" I mean all of these. And no matter what you call your audience - listeners, viewers, readers, visitors, subscribers, passengers, or users - the book is about all of these.
Audience research is a systematic and accurate way of finding out about your audience. There are two main things that audience research can do:
(1) estimate audience sizes, and
(2) discover audience preferences.
Radio and TV stations are unique in having a special need for audience research: this is the only industry that cannot accurately count its audience. A factory will always count the number of products it sells. A newspaper will (or could) always know its paid circulation. An organization that provides services rather than products (e.g. a hospital) is able to accurately count the number of people who walk through its doors. But radio and television programs are given away free to their audiences, and there is no way of measuring how many people tune into a program - without audience research.
For this reason, audience research was one of the first forms of market research. When radio became popular in rich countries in the 1920s, audience research followed soon afterwards. In countries where broadcasters depended on commercial revenue, such as the USA, audience surveys were done to find out how many people would hear a particular advertisement.
In countries with public radio, such as Britain and New Zealand, audience research began in the 1930s, seeking information from listeners. New Zealands first audience survey was in 1932. Postcard questionnaires were sent out to households with radio licenses, asking questions such as "Do you listen on a crystal set or a valve set?" and "Do you dance to broadcast dance music?"
Since those days, audience research has moved far beyond radio and television. The current growth area is internet audience research. And, though printed publications have readers rather than audiences, the same methods apply.
The most common method of audience research is the survey: a group of people is selected, they are all asked the same questions, and their answers are counted. But as well as surveys, there are many other methods of audience research, including observation, mechanical measurement (people-meters) and qualitative research. The first part of this book deals with surveys, and the second part covers most of the other methods.
Audience research methods can be applied for any activity with audiences: not only radio and television stations, but also print media, artistic activities, and (most recently) the internet. The methods described in this book apply to all of these, as well as to the study of societies (social research) and economic behaviour (market research).
Audience research, social research, and market research share a common body of methods, with slight variations. So when you know how to do audience research, you will also know how to carry out many types of market research and social research.
The importance of feedback
For any activity to be carried out well, some form of feedback is needed. Try walking with your eyes shut, and you will soon bump into something. Even without your thinking about it, the feedback from your eyes is used to correct your steps. In the same way, any organization that does not keep its eyes open is likely to meet with an accident.
In the media industries, the equivalent to walking is broadcasting the programs. The equivalent of watching where you are going is audience research.
But when you are walking, you are doing more than simply move your legs, and watch where you are going. You will also have decided where you are walking to. Depending on what you see, you will adjust your steps in the desired direction. And of course, at any time you may change your direction of walking.
Whether the activity is walking or broadcasting, you can draw a diagram of a "feedback loop", like this:
In recent years, the study of management methods has produced a system known as "strategic management." It follows the principles shown in the above diagram. Notice the bottom box, labelled "Get information on results of action". Audience research is part of that box.
Around the 1970s, some international aid programs had problems knowing exactly why they were doing some projects. Though a project might seem like a good idea, what was it actually achieving? To help answer this question, many aid agencies adopted a system called the Logical Framework, or a similar system called Object-Oriented Project Planning (ZOPP, in German).
The Logical Framework method (Log Frame for short) begins by creating a hierarchy of goals. It works like this:
1. State the main goal that you want the project to accomplish.
For example, to eliminate malaria in a region.
2. Then consider what other goals will need to be achieved to meet the first goal. In the case of the anti-malaria project, the three objectives could be:
a. to encourage people to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes;
b. to make anti-malarial drugs readily available
c. to eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
3. Now consider what must to be achieved to meet each of those goals and so on. To continue the anti-malaria example, the goals for 2a could include
a1. making anti-mosquito equipment widely available
a2. encouraging people to wear enough clothing at times when mosquitoes are feeding
a3. advising people on how to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.
The process continues, adding more and more levels. The highest levels are part of the initial plan. The lower levels are activities rather than goals. At the lowest possible level, a worker on the project might work towards goal a1 by visiting a particular school on a particular day, and giving the teachers information that could be used in lessons..
The whole structure can be drawn like a tree, with the single main goal at the bottom, and each branch dividing into more and more goals, objectives, strategies, aims, purposes, or activities. No matter what these are labelled, they are all a type of plan. (With the tree analogy, notice that the trunk is what you'd call the highest level - it's really an upside-down tree.)
This tree-like approach works well for a project with a very specific goal, such as the anti-malaria campaign. But organizations with audiences usually don't have a single main purpose. Many of them have several purposes, which are not clearly defined: nothing as simple and as measurable as "reduce the level of malaria in this region." For public companies, it's a little easier: in many countries their stated goal is to maximize the value of their shares. At least, that's what they say: but in many cases their shareholders could do better if the organization was closed down and the money invested in a more profitable concern. My own theory, after observing what really happens, is that the primary purpose of any organization is to survive.
And for an organization with audiences, its primary purpose (after survival) is to be creative: to provide enough entertaining, inspiring, informative, and educational material that its audience will stay with it - and the organization will survive..
For example, a radio station may decide to broadcast a program about how to avoid catching malaria. The program's purpose for the anti-malaria campaign is clear, but what purpose does it serve for the station? The station could say "we are broadcasting this program because we like to spend an hour a week on public health" - but why is that? In fact, broadcasting a program will probably serve a number of different purposes, because organizations with audiences usually have multiple, fuzzy, and overlapping goals.
To check that the tree-hierarchy makes sense, you can create an intent structure. This is done in the opposite way from forming the hierarchy of goals. You begin at the top level of the tree (the leaves, not the trunk). For each activity, consider "Why should we do this? What will it achieve?"
For most organizations with audiences, their logical framework diagrams won't look like trees, because each activity (program, article, etc) will serve several purposes. A tree covered in cobwebs might be a better example.
To complete the Logical Framework, several questions have to be answered for each goal and sub-goal:
- What resources are required to achieve this purpose?
- What constraints may prevent it; under what conditions will it succeed?
- How will its success be evaluated?
This last question is where audience research comes in. Most activities of an organization with an audience can't be evaluated without doing audience research.
If you have an audience, and you dont do audience research, this is equivalent to walking with your eyes shut. But many organizations (even those with audiences) survive without doing audience research. How do they survive?
If you want to know why audiences react as they do, you need audience research - or market research, or social research, depending on your industry. In larger organizations, where information about revenue is often delayed, or is complicated by other factors, regular audience research (or market research) can often provide an early indication of a change in the habits of the audience (or the customers).
Not all information-gathering is research. To qualify as research, information-gathering must be systematic and unbiased. It must cover the entire audience of interest. It should also avoid subjectivity: if two people do the same research, they should arrive at the same results.
Some politicians believe they can do public opinion research (yet another form of audience research) by talking to taxi drivers, because they believe that taxi drivers are typical of the whole population. Of course, this might be true, but it probably isnt. In developed countries, most taxi drivers are men, fairly young, and with below-average education. If you assume that the opinions of taxi drivers are typical, you are taking a big risk. Audience research greatly reduces this risk.
As mentioned above, radio and television have special need of audience research - simply to find out what most other organizations already know: how widely their services are used. Thus audience measurement is the most widely used form of audience research.
Theres an important difference between audience research and the customer information that non-broadcasting organizations gather. These other organizations collect information (mostly financial) about all their customers. If they calculate a total sales figure, it should be completely accurate. Audience research, because it relies on samples, cant be accurate to the last digit - but nor does it need to be.
If proper sampling procedures are used, you can estimate for a given sample size (number of people interviewed) the range of accuracy for any audience estimate.
A newspaper can make a statement like this: "Last week we sold 53,234 copies."
A broadcaster, after doing an audience survey, could make a statement like this: "Last week, the best guess at our audience is 52,000 listeners - but there is a 5% chance that the true figure is smaller than 49,000 or larger than 55,000." Interviewing more people can reduce the margin of error (3,000 either way, in this example), but it is always present whenever information is based on a sample, instead of the whole population. The larger the number of interviews, the smaller the margin of error. The next chapter covers this topic in detail.
Audience measurement is done in two main ways:
1. Surveys, asking people which programs or stations they listened to, at which times, on which days.
2. Meters attached to TV sets (or occasionally to radios) , which record the stations the set is tuned to, at which times, on which days.
Meters are more accurate than memories, but are very expensive. In most developed countries the television industry is large enough and rich enough to afford meters, particularly when there are commercial stations whose revenue depends on accurate audience information. But in developing countries, and those without commercial broadcasters, surveys are the commonest method of audience measurement.
Audience measurement can find out only that a person (or household) was tuned into a program at a particular time. It provides no information about the amount of attention being paid to the program, or opinions about the program, or other matters related to the program.
Sometimes a program has a clear purpose. For example, a radio program on health education might try to educate people on how to prevent malaria. If that is the only purpose of the program, its success can be evaluated using audience research methods.
Outcomes from the program might include people being aware of the program, people listening to it, people acting on its advice, and eventually a fall in the number of people who have malaria. (Of course, if the malaria rate does drop, there could be many other reasons for this too. When something happens, there are usually many different reasons.)
Another type of evaluation is testing a program not for social effectiveness (as above) but to simply improve programs. For example, a TV channel will make a pilot program and show it to a small group of people. These viewers will be asked questions about the program, and depending on their reaction, the program might be broadcast, cancelled, or changed.
If you dont want to measure the audience or evaluate a program, why would you do audience research? A very important reason is to understand your audience. The more you know about the types of people in your audience, their backgrounds, their interests, and their preferences, the better you can be at making programs to suit them.
Another reason for doing research is to use the results as program content. Some stations, before an election, carry out opinion polls, in which voters are asked who they intend to vote for. The results are then broadcast.
Lets begin with how not to do a survey.
Sometimes, broadcasters seem to say to themselves "Shall we do a survey? ... Yes, why not? What a good idea!"
So they produce a questionnaire, writing down all the things they want to know about their audience. Then they find some people who will fill in the questionnaire. (This type of survey nearly always uses questionnaires that the respondents fill in themselves.) Perhaps there is a big fair being held nearby, so the station prints a lot of questionnaires, and leaves a heap at the fair, with a sign instructing people to take a questionnaire, fill it in, and mail it back.
After this, the station may have a few completed questionnaires - but probably only a small percentage of the number printed. (The worst case I know of was the Wanganui Farmerama, an agricultural fair in New Zealand in the 1970s. Thousands of questionnaires were printed, but just 6 were filled in and returned. Nobody ever found out what happened to the rest.)
Not all of these questionnaires will be fully completed - but the station staff are probably used to forms that are unclear and poorly filled in. Now, the staff wonder what to do next. They begin to realize how much work will be required to process the questionnaires - though they are not sure how this processing is done.
What they didnt know was that producing the questionnaire and getting some completed questionnaires back was the easiest part of the process. Often, at this point the manager desperately glances through the questionnaires, and declares "Yes! I knew it all along: the listeners agree with me." The questionnaires are put away in a box. They gather dust for a year or two, and eventually they are thrown out.
What a waste of effort! If this story wasnt so common, it would be funny.
Now that youve seen how not to do a survey, lets look at a better method. Whether you do the survey (or other research) yourself, or commission another organization to do it, you should first of all:
1. Know what you want to know, and
2. Know how you will use the results.
If you dont know these, you will probably flounder in indecision, and not find out what you really need to know.
Audience research projects are usually done in this order:
1. Define the purpose of the research.
You should be able to summarize this in one sentence.
2. Try to find out if the information you need is already available.
If the information exists, you can stop now. If the information is not available, you can go ahead with the research plan.
3. How much is it worth to you, to know this?
Research can be very expensive. There are always ways to reduce the cost, but they bring certain disadvantages.
4. Which research method is most appropriate?
If you need precise numerical information, a survey will be needed. If you need to gain a broad understanding, and numbers are not so important (e.g. the types of people in your audience and what they prefer) qualitative research may be more appropriate.
5. Who will do the research?
Will you do it by yourself, or hire a research organization to do it all, or will it be some type of joint effort?
6. Now do the research.
This book explains how.
7. When the research is finished, compare the results with your activities.
What differences are there between the perfect activities (as defined by your audience) and your current activities? What needs to change? Why not change it, then?
You can plan a research project by asking yourself, and answering, these questions:
Its worthwhile to keep a list of some basic facts about your audience. I have compiled a set of basic questions, which cover most aspects of audience research. A well-informed publisher should know most of the answers to these questions.
1. How large is the audience - both as an average, and as the reach (number of different people)? This is explained in more detail in the box [separate file].
2. What kind of people make up the audience? How do they differ from the whole population - e.g. in terms of age group, sex, occupation, etc?
3. Where is your audience? In each part of your coverage area, what percentage of the population are members of your audience?
4. When does your audience use your publication (or tune into your station) - what time of day, what day of week, etc?
5. How do your audience members spend their time? How much of their time is spent being part of your audience? And how much with your competitors?
6. What type of content (e.g. radio and TV programs, newspaper articles) interests your audience most - and least?
7. What styles of presentation do your audience prefer, and what styles do they dislike?
8. Which activities, attitudes, and other effects do your publications cause among your audience?
9. How will your audience react to a new kind of program or article that you might introduce?
10. How can you increase your audience? Is it best to try to find new listeners? Or to bring lapsed listeners back? Or to persuade existing listeners to spend more time with your broadcasts?
11. What percentage of the population in your area know about your station - and how much do they know about it?
12. What is preventing people from using your service as much as they might?
Most audience research is directed towards answering the above general questions. Some of them, of course, are more than one question. In fact, some of those questions can be divided into hundreds of more precise questions.
With any proposed research project, it is useful to work out which of the above general questions it tries to answer. Most research projects will cover more than one of the general questions, but if you have done no audience research before, it will be impossible to cover all questions with a single project. You would have to ask thousands of questions, and most respondents would not have enough patience to answer so many questions accurately.