Audience Dialogue

Know Your Audience: chapter 1, part B
Planning audience research

Situation assessment

A useful exercise to do when planning a research project is a situation assessment. This is a systematic way of considering all factors that might affect your organization. This often forms a part of a marketing plan or a strategic planning exercise.

Three main factors that affect stations and audiences are broad social trends, the audience environment, and your media environment. To assess these factors, three tools you can use are trend assessment, audience assessment, and SWOT analysis.

Trend assessment

What are the major trends now happening, and expected to continue over the next few years? I’ve divided all possible trends into six broad groupings. For each trend, you can identify aspects that are growing, and aspects that are declining. Most of this may have to be based on opinion rather than fact. A good reason for doing audience research is to convert the opinions into facts.

Below is an example of a completed trend chart. Try doing one for your area, using published information (such as Census data) if this is available. Even if you’re not sure exactly what the trends are, it’s useful to discuss these with your colleagues before planning an audience research project. Some of this information may not be available, and the audience research project can be used to collect it.

Social trends chart

Type of trend




More people aged over 50

Fewer people living on farms


Higher average income

Less unemployment


More freedom of speech

Independence of local government


More background noise

Smaller farms


Introduction of satellite TV

% with no electricity at home

Personal values

Desire for freedom among teenagers

Respect for the elderly

Audience preferences

Use of Internet

Willingness to watch serials?

The examples above should be replaced with your own information or beliefs. Some trends, such as the growth of the Internet, may fall into several of these categories. Environmental trends may not always be relevant to radio and TV audiences, but it’s worthwhile to think about them - and they always provide good material for programs.

Audience assessment

This involves summarizing the social situation of your present and potential audience. Here are some of the key questions to which you should know the answers. The first group could be answered without doing audience research, e.g. by using Census data.

1 What is the area covered by your station or publication? This can be divided into an inner area, where you face little competition, and an outer area, where perhaps your station can be received, but other stations may be more relevant.

2 How many people live in the inner and the outer areas?

3 What other media, and other activities are competing for your audience’s time?

4 What sort of people does your station try to attract? (In terms of age group, education, etc.)

5 How are these people distributed across the coverage area? Are there small areas with a much higher concentration of them?

The following questions can be answered only by doing audience research:

6 What proportion of the inner and outer area populations use your station?

7 How often do they use it? At what times, on what days?

8 What is your station’s share of their available time?

9 What types of people use your station most?

10 In what circumstances do people use your station?

If you can answer all of the above questions, you will have a good picture of your audience.

SWOT analysis

As well as the audience environment, there’s the media environment. A good way to think about this is to do a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

A SWOT analysis is done by getting a group of people to answer four questions. People usually do a SWOT analysis by considering each of the four factors in turn: S, W, O, T. But I’ve found it’s better to go S, W, T, O. Though you can’t pronounce it, the natural flow of human thought is to move from problems towards solutions - like this:

S. What are our particular strengths? What can we do better than any other publisher?

W. What are our weaknesses? What things do we not do as well as other publishers?

T. What are the threats to our organization? What might come along that would make us irrelevant, or take away most of our audience?

O. What opportunities could we seize? What aren’t our competitors doing, that our audience would like? (Opportunities come and go quickly: if another radio station foolishly changes its format and loses most of its listeners, perhaps your station could gain them if it acts quickly.)

Who should be involved in a SWOT analysis? It can be done by a single person (yourself, perhaps), but a single person will probably not think of all the strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities. If a number of your staff meet, and spend a few hours discussing these four questions, many more factors will be included. It’s best to include some outsiders - even well-informed audience members - because sometimes they can see things that a station’s staff don’t notice.

Stakeholder analysis

Stakeholders are types of people who have an interest in what you are doing. For example, if you are running a commercial radio station, your stakeholders will include

...and so on: every type of person who would be affected by any action your organization might take.

The first step in stakeholder analysis is to work out who the stakeholders are. For each group of stakeholders, you should consider:

You’ll probably find that you don’t have all this information, from each type of stakeholder. It’s helpful to guess, but distinguish (a) what you know for sure, (b) what you have good reason to suspect, and (c) what you are guessing at.

If you’re planning some action which may be controversial, it’s useful to consider each type of stakeholder in turn, and their likely reaction to your proposed changes.

When you have completed a situation assessment, using the above four tools, you’ll probably realize that there are some important questions that you don’t know the answers to. That’s why a situation assessment leads naturally into audience research.

Reasons for research

There are several reasons for doing audience research. Depending on which reason applies in a particular situation, a different type of research should be chosen. Four of the most common reasons are to help in making a decision, to understand the audience, to demonstrate facts to outsiders, and to provide material for programs.

The most effective small research projects I’ve seen have resulted from the need to make a decision based on audience data. Often, only a few very specific questions need to be asked, or one main topic area covered.

The best solution here is a small survey (with a sample as little as 100), or a set of 3 or 4 consensus groups. Use a survey if you are clear about exactly what you want to know, and need a numerical answer. Use consensus groups if you are uncertain about the exact questions that should be asked, and you don’t need exact numbers, but will be satisfied with statements such as "the great majority prefer..."

This is a more difficult task — and one that never stops. The questions often asked by the organization’s management are along the lines of "What type of people tune in to our station? What interests them most? How do they spend their time?"

If this is your main interest, you could consider either a set of consensus groups, or a detailed survey. In general, I recommend consensus groups. A survey will provide precise results to the questions asked, but will give no information at all on questions that weren’t asked. Also, a survey will cost a lot more, and take more time.

Commercial broadcasters want to convince manufacturers and retailers to advertise on their station. For this, it helps to have data showing the size, demographics, and interests of their audience. A related purpose is a special-interest organization, seeking support from a funding body, and providing survey data to show the extent of public support for that organization.

This type of information is more convincing if it comes from a survey, conducted very thoroughly by an impartial third party, such as an industry-wide body or market research company. If your organization does the survey itself, the results will have less credibility to outsiders, no matter how accurately you do the work.

Alternatively, you could have your survey audited by an independent organization, to confirm that the results you are publishing are unbiased.

Most media organizations can use research methods to gather data about audiences, and make programs based on this data. Audiences like to hear about public opinion, and general reaction to issues of the day, and programs created from (or supported by) research data always seem to be popular.

For this purpose, all research methods are suitable, including surveys, consensus groups, and informal interviews. To gain the fullest information, several different methods can be used.

What do you need to know - and how will you use that knowledge?

Whatever the purpose of the research, the first stage is to ask yourself "What do we need to know from this research?"

When an organization asks my group to carry out a research project for it, the first thing I ask them to do is to write out a list of questions that they want the research to answer. This is not the same as writing a questionnaire; it is the list of questions that need to be answered. I also ask them to consider what action they might take, resulting from the answers to a question. If no action will result from a question, that question will usually be of lower priority than one whose answers cause a decision to be made.

When the list of questions has been prepared, the next stage is to convert the questions into a set of hypotheses.


A hypothesis is a statement whose truth can be tested in a survey. For example, a manager of a TV station might say "Our viewers are old." This is not a real hypothesis, because it’s not precise enough. You need to specify exactly what "viewers" and "old" mean. For example "The people who watch our station at least once a week are aged over 40." That’s better, but it’s not quite there: does "the people" mean "all the people" or "most of the people"? How about this: "More than two thirds of the people who watch our channel at least once a week are aged over 40."

That’s a hypothesis. It can be tested by including two questions in a survey, e.g.

A hypothesis often has its beginnings in an assumption. The staff of an organization often hold assumptions about their audiences. But these assumptions are beliefs, not facts, and often they aren’t true. Sometimes, the staff don’t even realize they are making assumptions about their audience. Therefore, at the planning stage of a survey, it’s valuable to include people who know something about your organization, but can take a broader view. These can be members of another organization that you work with, some members of your audience, and other kinds of other stakeholders. The most effective planning groups seem to include a wide range of different types of people.

One of the main problems in doing your own research, and not consulting other stakeholders, is that you can lose this broad viewpoint. This is where market research companies can be most useful: in identifying the assumptions that you’re not aware you’re making.

Who should do the research

If you do your own research, it is much cheaper - but that is because most of the cost involves labour. You need to be highly organized, and to have suitable staff with plenty of time available. You also need to be well informed - for example, by reading this book.

If you hire a research group, it will be much more expensive, but you should receive the results sooner. The work should be of better quality, but may lose something in relevance.

Usually the best results are achieved if you work closely with a professional researcher, but learn as much as you can about the process, and fit the purpose and results of the research into your own management process. My advice is not to rush into doing research straight away, but spend plenty of time with the research company - not only your top manager, but also a number of your staff.


A problem with many surveys designed by novices is the lack of information with which results can be compared. You might ask, for example, your audience’s opinion of a presenter. Suppose that you do a survey, and find that 56% regard the presenter as "good". Without a comparison, this figure is not useful - is 56% high or low?

If you also asked about a number of presenters on your station, or even some presenters on other stations, this information would be much more useful.

Unless you already have a lot of information about your audience (from previous research) you should make lots of comparisons in a research project - more than you initially think are necessary.

Guidelines for doing your own research

If you decide to do the research yourself, here are some suggestions.

Don’t seek information that you’re not prepared to act on. If you are determined to scrap that program anyway, why do audience research? To prove something to others? If so, are they going to believe the results of research you’ve done without involving them? Not ;ikely! The results will only justify the effort if you can make use of them.

A radio station may want to increase its audience. Newcomers to audience research might think that only listeners to the station should be questioned, because non-listeners would not be able to answer some of the questions. This is a mistake, but you may not discover it till the research is finished. Always try to measure the central activity (e.g. listening to radio) in a broader context. In this example, don’t ask only about your radio station, or even all radio stations in the area. What a radio station is competing for is the audience’s time, so a comprehensive study needs to find out how people spend their time.

When doing your first survey, don’t ask too many questions, and don’t have too large a sample. Small surveys have a much better record for being completed and acted on. There’s seldom a need to interview more than 500 people — though 100 should be regarded as a minimum. If you’ve never done a survey before, try to restrict the questionnaire to 2 pages, or about 12 short questions. You can always do another survey later.

I recommend that your first project should be a set of consensus groups - because

When you have done a set of consensus groups, you may find you need to do a survey. If so, you will already have a set of statements which can easily be converted into survey questions.

Take steps to make sure that the sample is a representative part of the population. Don’t let the interviewers speak to whomever they please; people are not all alike.

And never assume that you, yourself are typical - for a start, you know much more about your own station than most audience members will.

A few pages is usually enough: long reports usually go unread. But do produce a brief report, even if only so that you’ll know better next time. (The second audience research project is always easier than the first.)

More than most other activities, an audience research project is something in which every part relates to every other part. If you stop halfway through the process, and return to the project later, you’ll probably have forgotten why some questions were asked. For the same reason, if you can read this whole book without stopping, you’ll have a better idea of the inter-relationships between different aspects of surveys.

Which is the best research technique?

No single research technique is best, but each technique is appropriate for a particular kind of situation. There’s an old saying, common among researchers, and still true: "Research can be fast, cheap, and accurate - pick any two."

In other words:

In some situations, you don’t need very accurate research. If you have never done audience research before, and have no information about your audience, it’s not difficult or expensive to gather some data.

For example, if you don’t know the ages of your audience, you could do a small survey and perhaps find that 70% were under 30 years old. If only 100 people were surveyed (as long as they form a representative sample) you can expect that the figure of 70% may be about 5% in error. But whether the true figure is 65% or 75%, you will be much better informed than you were before.

So if you only want to get an approximate idea of your audience, it is possible to do research quickly and cheaply, and still have it accurate enough. The more you already know about your audience, the more expensive it becomes to increase that knowledge.

The following table lists the main research methods, showing their strengths and weaknesses. I also show their relative cost and speed - but not their accuracy. That depends on sample size (the larger, the better) and how well the project is done; any method can be used well or poorly.


Face to face



Consensus groups







Very low








Interviewers must be able to reach respondents

All must have telephone

All must be literate

All must be able to attend

All must have internet access

Main problems

Organizing interviewer tasks

Getting telephone numbers

Dealing with poorly completed questionnaires

Getting useful results

Strong computer skills needed

Here’s a more detailed consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of each of the main methods of audience research. Notice that these types overlap: spoken surveys include face-to-face surveys, which in turn include face-to-face surveys at respondents' homes. Advantages and disadvantages of the main type (e.g. spoken surveys) also apply to comments about the sub-type (e.g. face-to-face surveys).

Survey type



Spoken surveys

Effective in all situations, e.g. when literacy level is low.

Need a lot of organization.

Face to face surveys

Usually provides very accurate results. Any question can be asked. Can include observation and visual aids.

Expensive, specially when large areas are covered.

Face to face surveys at respondents’ home/work/etc.

Can cover the entire population.

Expensive; much organization needed.

Face to face surveys in public places

Can do lots of interviews in a short time.

Samples are usually not representative of the whole population.

Telephone surveys

High accuracy obtainable if most members of population have telephones.

No visual aids possible. Only feasible with high telephone saturation.

Written surveys

Cheaper than face-to-face surveys.

Hard to tell if questions not correctly understood. More chance of question wording causing problems.

Mail surveys


Allows anonymity.

Requires high level of literacy and good postal system. Slow to get results.

Self-completion, questionnaires collected and delivered

Cheap. Gives respondents time to check documents.

Respondents must be highly literate..

Fax surveys



Questionnaires with more than one page are often only partially returned.

Email surveys

Very cheap

Quick results.

Samples not representative of whole population. Some respondents lie. High computer skills needed.

Web surveys

More easily processed than email questionnaires

Many people don’t have good web access..

Informal methods



Can’t produce accurate figures. Experience needed for comparisons. Subjective. Most suitable for preliminary studies.


Little work required


Often not completely relevant. Samples often not representative. Most suitable when assessing progress.

Observation (can be combined with surveys)

More accurate than asking people their behaviour.

Only works in limited situations.


More accurate than asking people their behaviour.

Very expensive to set up; measures equipment rather than people. Can’t find out reasons for behaviour.


Ability to discover changes in individuals’ preferences and behaviour.

Need to maintain records of previous contact, etc.

Depth interviews

Provide insights not available with most other methods.

Expensive; need highly skilled interviewers.

Focus groups

Provide insights not available with most other methods.

Need highly skilled moderator, trained in psychology etc.

Consensus groups

Instant results.

Clear wording.


Secretary and/or moderator need strong verbal skills. Don’t work well in some cultures, e.g. Buddhist.

Internet qualitative research

Easy for a geographically dispersed group to meet.

Low cost.

Doesn’t provide the subtlety of personal interaction. Very new, so few experts available to help with problems.

Combinations of methods

When a study is done in several phases, one after another, you can use different methods in each phase. This often applies with screening surveys, when the first contact with respondents is used to decide which respondents should receive a more detailed questionnaire. The first contact should be a method that excludes nobody, while the main questionnaire can use a cheaper approach.

One example of this is the phone/mail survey. Initial contact is made by phone. Respondents are asked a few questions. If they give suitable answers (e.g. if they listen to your station) the interviewer then asks if a questionnaire can be mailed to them, about your station’s programs. Most respondents will agree. Because the first contact has been a personal one, response rates on the mail survey will be much higher than if mail had been used in both phases.

Another example is a survey I did recently with a sample of market research companies in Australia. The first contact was a one-page fax questionnaire, with three questions. Those who had used the internet for market research were then offered the choice of three methods for the main questionnaire: fax again, mail, or the Web. (Nearly all of them chose the Web.)

Writing a research brief

When you commission a research project from an outside research group, you need to write a brief, describing what you want to know. This is sometimes called an RFP, or request for proposal. The research group comes back to you with a detailed proposal, outlining their proposed solutions to your problem (and of course the cost).

Even if you are planning to do the research yourself, it’s an excellent idea to write a brief. This helps you to focus on exactly what you want to know. Having written your own brief, you can complete it by adding your own proposal, which will show how you will use audience research to answer your questions. Sometimes, writing a brief will show you that your problem can be solved without audience research

There’s also a third section, which can be added to the brief and the proposal. This is an action plan, which describes any actions you have in mind to take, depending on the result of the research.

Briefs, proposals, and action plans need not be long - a few pages is normally enough. They are very helpful in the later planning stages, when you may be tempted to add all sorts of new elements to the original problem. If the research project seems to be getting so big that it will never be finished, review your brief and proposal. When you have an original plan, new ideas can be seen in the context of that plan, and sometimes found unnecessary.

Points to include in a brief

1. Give your research project a name: no more than about 10 words. This will help you define it more clearly.

2. A statement of the reason why you need research. Keep it short - and be honest!

3. Background of the problem. What a researcher should know to understand your problem.

4. What you will do as a result of this research, and how your action will depend on the results.

5. The main question you need answered.

6. The other internal questions that flow from this. (Don't try to write a questionnaire - that's the researcher's job. Instead, focus on your own questions, and let the researcher worry about how they should be answered.)

7. How certain you need to be about the results. (Research results are never exact, because only a sample of the population is used. Halving the uncertainty will almost quadruple the cost.)

8. If there's a date by which you must have the results, state it. (If you give a date that is earlier than you need, this could reduce the quality of the research, or increase the cost.)

8. Who the tenderers should contact for further information. .

How much to spend on audience research

Unlike other activities which have a fairly fixed cost (such as accounting), audience research can cost a little or a lot. The cost is largely proportional to the sample size and the amount of labour involved: there are few economics of scale with audience research.

You won't get much for under $US 1000 anywhere in the world, but some research programs - specially permanent panels with TV meters - can cost millions of dollars. As a guide, many large broadcasters spend around 1% to 2% of their total revenue on audience research each year. For an individual project, which needs more detailed research than usual, it's common to spend around 5% to 10% of the project's cost on research.

If this is your first audience research project, and you have no idea how much to spend, I suggest you begin with a fairly small project. This will give you some experience at dealing with research companies. You will learn a lot, which will be useful later. You can then organize a larger follow-up project.

In a research brief, you can ask companies to give a quotation of the cost, then choose the cheapest company - but that may be a mistake. For any research method, there are ways to cut corners, and lower the quality, and an inexperienced client will probably know nothing about this. Experienced users of research usually take a different approach to costing. In the brief, they include the approximate amount they are willing to spend, and tenderers are asked what they can do for that amount.

When the proposals come back, the researchers offering a high quality service will give a detailed description of the quality of the work they propose to do. Those who don't emphasize quality won't mention it. With this method, it's usually easy to work out which companies are the most competent.

Dealing with tenderers

When you have written your brief, you can contact some research companies, ask if they are interested in working for you, and if so, send them the brief. Give them a week or two to come up with a proposal, then ask each one to visit you and discuss the proposal.

Questions you can ask a researcher include

- How much experience do you have at doing this exact type of work?

- What qualifications do you have for doing this type of work?

- Can you give me the names of some of your previous clients, so that I can speak to them about your work?

- Can I see some reports you have written?

- What is your preferred style of working with clients? There's no right or wrong answer to this, but no matter how competent a researcher is, if their approach doesn't fit in with your, you won't gain nearly as much from the research.