Monday, January 12, 2009

There is No General Audience

This is the second section of Part 1 of 6 in the Research Roadmap for Public Communication of Science & Technology Series

Last week we talked about how there was no general audience for science communication. In fact, I would argue that there really is no general audience for any type of communication. The keyword in that sentence being general. So although we may never be able to just put an ad on TV for science and have America fall in love with our beloved -ologies too, we can certainly talk to people about science.

There are PLENTY of audiences for science communication, if you don't shoot for the whole country en masse at the same time. Because as Hillary commented, "Many Americans are curious about and interested in lots of things that they do not know much about." So how do you get your information to the most people in the shortest amount of time? Strategize.

1. What is it that you want to tell everyone? (keep it simple folks)
2. Why is it important that they know? (general knowledge doesn't count)
3. Would certain people be more effected than others? (target audience!)
4. Can it be explained in a simple sentence or paragraph? (the answer should always be yes)
5. Is there some sub-population that might be more likely to spread this information? (these people will do some of your communicating work for you)

In just a few simple questions, we've found at least two audiences for your message. Now let's try an example and break down the possible audiences.

(1) Say that the message you want to send is that recycling is good for both human and planetary health. (2) It's important that people know because it could alter their health and the health of the planet itself. In answering the first two questions we've discovered that we have at least two targetable audiences: people interested in their health and people interested in the health of the planet.

(3) People who live near trash dumps and oceans (often used for dumping) will be most effected in the short term and young people will feel the effects the most in the long term. Two more specific audiences.

(4) Even if you can get the audience's attention, if what you're telling them isn't clear and concise, you've lost them again. Also, what is simple and easy to understand for some people isn't easy for others. Tailor your message to the specific audience you're talking to.

(5) If you can get even a small group of people interested enough in your message, they'll share it with others. In communication and marketing circles, these people are called opinion/thought leaders, influentials, or network hubs. In the case of anything science, a good group of opinion leaders to consider would be science bloggers or deans of research who might spread the information within their networks of influence.
In our example, we've already found a number of small audiences that would likely be interested in our message:

* People interested in health
* People who want to save the planet
* People who live near dumping sites (including beaches)
* Young people

From those populations, we can also see a number of other audience groups that make sense:

* Parents & teachers (for the young people)
* Tourists (for nature and the beaches)
* Local community leaders (for their citizens)
* Business owners in coastal communities (for their own well-being)

When you add up the eight different bulleted groups of individuals above, you're hitting a pretty big segment of the population. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. If and when you have something that is really important enough to tell everyone, it will be easy enough to split "everyone" into smaller, much more manageable groups.

So, no, there is no general audience for science communication. But there are audiences. Lots of them. It is going to take a bit more time to get to them in small groups than it would if everyone fit together. But instead of your really exciting science falling on uninterested (and therefore ostensibly deaf) ears, you'll reach the most important audiences - first. Once you've reached them, you can always work on reaching the other people that you'd like to know.

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