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Why your audience IS at the heart of your fundraising, communications and innovation

This week I’ve seen several blogs and tweets from people whose thinking I respect touching on the subject of putting your audience at the centre of your actions.  Some have suggested that the audience should always be the driving force and others have posited that true innovation might not be possible if you do.
Jeff Brooks (@jeffbrooks) talks about why smart fundraising is about donors, not about the programmes being delivered by the organisation.  I disagree slightly in that I’d add that it’s also about beneficiaries so that you can evidence outcomes to encourage more donations.  But where Jeff and I agree totally is that fundraising communications are not about the charity or the charity’s projects.
Angus Maclennan (@AngusMacLennan) quoted Steve Jobs of Apple who believes that asking customers what they want is not always the best way to innovate.  If he had, Apple would never have launched the ipod.  This thinking only continues the now famous approach of Sony who launched the original personal music player, the Walkman, based on the belief of its leadership team and engineers, rather than research.
I have some sympathy with the Walkman example but I think that the sophistication of individuals in the developed world has moved on to such a point that not even Steve Jobs develops services that pay no heed to potential customer trends (and I’m sure he doesn’t claim to).
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that target audience wants and needs are indeed at the heart of any organisation’s success.  The key is in understanding that audience insight doesn’t necessarily come from asking them direct questions or conducting specific research. For example the guys at Apple knew that people liked music on the move, that they would like to listen for a bit longer , to a wider choice of tracks and that it would be great if the player could be smaller to fit better in bags or pockets.
They knew because this was what people criticised about the Walkman and personal CD players.  Audience consideration. If they had asked people ‘would you like an ipod?’, I’m sure the reaction of most respondents wouldn’t have led Apple to believe the little player would be the global success it is.
In the charity world Help for Heroes has taken a different approach to supporting people injured serving in the British armed forces.  I don’t presume to know the ins and outs of their launch strategy but they probably knew they had two audiences they had to appeal to:

  1. The beneficiaries and their colleagues who had been used to other, more established charities
  2. The British public who were far more familiar with poppies and smaller scale, perhaps more localised fundraising activities

The Help for Heroes team knew that there was a public groundswell of feeling around the armed forces not being well enough supported by government.  They knew that the UK public is amongst the most generous in the world in terms of charitable giving and has a history of supporting the armed forces. They also knew that social media was being increasingly used to communicate the successes and importance of charity projects and to build support amongst younger, non-traditional-donor supporters.
Finally, the team appreciated that the British public is somewhat obsessed with celebrity and in many cases influenced by what celebrities do in the name of charity. So whilst they certainly innovated in terms of how the charity raises funds and they’ve rightfully won plaudits for their success, this has been in the context of the above ie; their target audiences were indeed part of the innovation process.
Moral 1:  we don’t have to conduct direct research amongst our audiences to be able to consider how they will behave, what they will give or what they will buy.  There is so much other information centred on our audiences’ needs and wants that influences our approach whether we are aware of it or not.
Moral 2:  successful organisations take the broader audience needs into account to inform the direction of their innovation, not to curtail it.
What do you think?



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