Why and How to Understand Your Audiences

By Shannon Brescher Shea, Senior Writer/Editor for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science Communication and Public Affairs

When you put your communications out there in the “cold, harsh world”, who exactly are you trying to speak to? Knowing your audience is the first step in developing effective communications.

While understanding your audience may feel overwhelming, one way to break it down is to start with the 5 W’s of writing: who, what, where, when and why?

  • Who is your audience? How do they see themselves? What part of their life are you addressing? For example, a pregnant scientist may look at two very different government websites to search for possible research grants and information for expecting parents.
  • What are your audience’s needs – both practical and emotional? What problems do you want to help them solve? What do they already know about the topic?
  • Where do they go for information, websites, social networks or TV news?
  • When does your audience look for information or face certain challenges? Is there a certain season, like summers for national parks?
  • Why will they keep coming back to you for information? What will help them to not only earn your trust, but also help them think of you as a useful, reliable source of information?

Unlike corporations that can conduct large surveys, the Paperwork Reduction Act limits how much information the Federal Government can collect about its audiences. Federal offices (including employees as well as contractors) can’t ask more than nine non-federal employees the same question without getting approval from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

Despite this limitation, there are still options for gathering data. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau and local governments can provide information on demographics. Also, some agencies have special permission to regularly collect data, such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, social science and market research studies, like the Pew Research Center and Gallup, often “dig” into people’s opinions. Even informal conversations with stakeholders and small focus groups can provide qualitative insights. In fact, if you need to do a survey, certain projects can qualify for the Paperwork Reduction Act’s fast-track process, as described on DigitalGov.

As you think through these questions or collect data, you may realize that you have more than one target audience. Instead of clustering them into one group, try to sort them by the characteristics most relevant to your mission and the services you are providing.

Once you know this basic information obtained from the 5 W’s, consider how you can engage each individual audience. Most people are “motivated information seekers,” which means they are coming to you for specific reasons, not just because they happen upon to “stumble “upon your content. If you know your audience’s needs, the platforms they’re going to, and why they’re going there, you can be much more effective in developing messages and content that resonates with them.

In the long run, conducting a thorough audience analysis will result in a great start to a communications strategy.


Shannon Brescher Shea is a senior writer and editor for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science Communications and Public Affairs. She covers basic science research supported by the DOE, ranging from fusion energy to the Great Prairie’s microbiome. Previously, she worked in communications for the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. She also works as a freelance writer, focusing on parenting and environmental sustainability.