Have you seen one of the latest comedy videos from Wong Fu Productions? [If not, it’s worth 4:20 minutes of your time.] In “How Old Is She?!,” a guy tries to figure out how old the cute girl in the coffee shop is, and based on a quick battery of questions, he mentally places her all over the life spectrum. It got us thinking about how often we face a similar challenge of identifying the key health and behavioral factors that make our clients’ audiences tick.
From 30,000 feet or just a meter away, it can be hard to know whether a group of 40-somethings living in a particular community are ‘doers’ of a particular behavior. Maybe they avoid eating processed foods or are using a wearable device to track their daily physical activity steps. Maybe they have limited access to health insurance and use an FQHC for care. Maybe they retired early and never smoked a day in their lives. When clients approach us with new health communication projects, we don’t always know who are audience segments are at the beginning, and there are days when our work doesn’t seem too far from the mark in ‘How Old Is She?!’.
What we have learned, though, is that context matters. Where these audiences live, learn, work and play, along with how they consume media and identify with particular groups or social networks, all matter to our strategic communication work. Age, as the video shows, is more than a number. Someone who is 24 but doesn’t own a TV and has an acute health condition is quite different from a 24-year-old who manages his own photography and design business and hasn’t thought about the salt in the processed foods he eats.
We strive to know as much as possible about our audience segments in order to meet them where they’re at. We use these insights to design strategies and messages that will resonate and support action (and how often have we seen messages or strategies in health comm that fall flat?). To get this understanding, we start with primary and secondary data sets, whether it is conducting our own surveys and original research, or tapping existing data sources like Census or HINTS. All of these data points say a lot more about who audiences are beyond age demographics. Occasionally, they even tell us when our program plans are off-course, for example when it’s clear an audience isn’t ready or otherwise right for an intended program, service or campaign.
The danger, of course, is when sizing up an audience, speed dating style. A number is just a number without the context.
So how do you learn about our audience segments? Any hints or suggestions to share?