Great audience insight is gathered by quick experimentation.

I spend my days helping non-profit organisations to innovate more successfully by using lean experimentation and agile ways of working to quickly understand what their audience really wants then deliver it to them.

The week before last, THINK asked me to speak to a group of fundraising leaders about why this works and how to do it. The last time I spoke like this I received a sea of blank stares — I’d definitely not got my point across. This time I decided to take a different approach. (Firstly, I steeled my nerves by eating an entire family pack of m&ms then showed how this way of working delivers results to a specific question.

The fundraisers had asked about “how to get audience insight and what to do with it when you’ve got it”. My aim was to challenge them to approach audience insight differently:

  1. To have staff run quick tests with their audience then iterate their ideas based on what they learned, rather than commissioning mounds of data from external agencies that they’d then need to wade through.
  2. To observe how their audience really behave rather than relying on what the audience say they’d do.

Then I got them to have a go at applying this to their real life challenges.

Here’s a bit more info about what I shared:

The forum applying the principles I shared to their real-life examples
  1. Great audience insight is gathered quickly and iteratively

I shared the central premise from Eric Ries’ Lean Startup book that the best way to find out what your audience want is to:

  • Break down what you need to know into small pieces
  • Learn about the riskiest aspect by quickly by putting it in front of your audience
  • Then move on to test the next aspect…building your idea piece by piece

By breaking your idea down and testing step by step you can move much more quickly.I suggested the best way to do this is to have a small staff team do this rather than getting an external agency to go and do a big supporter survey or chunky piece of market research. Why?

  • It’s waaaay cheaper
  • You’re gathering targeted insight (so you don’t have to wade through mountains of data to pull out what you want)
  • Deep knowledge of your audience builds within your organisation, not an agency

I told them how I used this approach with Plan International UK to develop an efficient, digital way for donors to sponsor a child abroad. We drafted an advert for what we thought the new product might be, printed it and took it to Waitrose, where our target audience shopped. We wanted to show it to 6 of our target audience to understand if we were broadly on the right track. Why only 6 people? The UX world agrees that when running usability testing (for example with a website) it just needs 5 or 6 people to see a trend around aspects of your idea that will or won’t work. For us, after just a few minutes loitering in the frozen food aisle we identified our first problem…we’d named the product ‘smarter child sponsorship’ and the audience response was “Why would I only sponsor the smart children?!”. Lesson learned. We changed the name of our imaginary product and then went to a different Waitrose and asked another 6 people….until we had enough confidence we were creating something our audience would understand and want.

2. Great audience insight is observed behaviour not reported introspection.

To get room’s attention I shared this headline:

“35% of the UK public intend to leave a gift to charity in their will but in reality only 6.3% do.”

My point was that asking your audience what they think they’ll do is a poor indicator of what they’ll actually do. So don’t bother. In focus groups and surveys people are just reporting back how they expect they’ll react (an enjoyably controversial article on why ‘Focus groups are worthless’ here). The alternative I proposed is to find ways to watch your audience interact with something in real life! I shared that tools from the world of UX (more often used to create websites or apps) are a great way to do this. For example, to gauge audience interest in a new idea, you could create an advert on your website or a flyer and see how many people contact you to find out more. No need to have the event ready yet, just count how many people take an action to find out more then thank them for their interest. Or, to understand how your audience might interact with your idea; create a paper mock-up of your idea, give it to 6 of your target audience and watch how they interact with it. For example I recently supported Lianne Howard-Dace and her team at Christian Aid to create a mockup of a revamped welcome pack. They shared it with 6 supporters to understand what content should be included. Check out the Real Startup Book for an full list of tests you could use.

In the final 30 minutes we applied these principles to a real life challenge the group were facing. I asked them to note down:

1. What’s the idea?

2. What are the things you need to know in order to succeed? (eg. who is the audience? How much will they raise? Should we charge for entry?)

3. Which is the most important of these questions?

4. What could you do to quickly learn something to answer that question? (eg use a paper mock-up or draft advert.)

5. Plan how you’ll learn this and what you’ll measure.

6. Do your test, collect results

Then go back to step 1. and update your idea based on what you learned and work down the list again.

The feedback from the session was great — lots of discussion and detailed questions showed I’d got my point across and the fundraisers’ excitement was clear to see. Chuffed! Thank you to Gary Kernahan for inviting me to the THINK Events forum.

I help organisations that do good innovate faster, cheaper and more successfully by applying digital thinking.