If A Tree Falls In The Forest

How to make sure your stories never go unheard

by Sruthi Sadhujan, Director of Strategy & Accounts at Hyperakt

The following is an adapted transcript from a breakout session that Sruthi facilitated at ComNet18 in San Francisco.

Most nonprofits are driven by a valiant impulse to tell stories, as often as possible, to as many people as possible. But a story on its own can only go so far. Like an arrow without a clear target, a story without a clear audience is in danger of going unheard.

In just the past decade, as design and business have become increasingly intimate bedfellows, the gospel of “knowing your audience” has seeped into the mainstream. Innovative companies like Airbnb and Capital One have proven that knowing your audience is a strategic asset and continue to raise the bar for deploying smart design.

Thankfully, knowing your audience is no longer just reserved for tech companies, designers, or ad agencies.

It doesn’t have to be expensive.
It doesn’t have to be complicated.
It doesn’t have to be time consuming.

Whatever you want to call it — human-centered design, user-centric methodologies, market research, building empathy, etc. — the time has come to know your audience. Who are they? What do they care about? What motivates them? In the following article, I lay out three strategies, from low-fidelity to high-fidelity, that can help nonprofits raise the bar for strategic external communications. With a range of options, from budget-friendly hacks to robust research methodologies, nonprofits can get in on the action too.

But first, prioritize your audiences

Before you start getting to know your audience, you have to identify who they are. Who are you talking to? Who are you trying to inspire into action? This is one of the first questions we at Hyperakt ask our nonprofit clients and the answers we get tend to be vague and one-dimensional.

“The general public. We want everyone to hear our story!”

“We want to reach all people who care about [insert relevant issue here].”

“Our donors.”

When thinking about your audiences, remember two things: be specific and cast a wide net. Instead of aiming for a broad segment like “donors”, dig deeper. By donors, do you mean one-time donors who give specific amounts in response to a particular campaign? Do you mean recurring donors who pledge $100 annually? Or do you mean high net worth individuals who give upwards of $100,000?

Generate a long, unfiltered list — one that is a broad sampling of your audience ecosystem, but that is also specific in its labels — and plot the audiences on a two-dimensional matrix like the one below, which takes into account both influence and interest.

Influence is the power a stakeholder has to facilitate or impede the objectives of your project.

Interest represents their likelihood to care about or be invested in the issue.

The more audiences you plot, the more you will start to understand the ecosystem — who the players are, where they stand, and whether or not they can help meet your goals. It may turn out that some audiences you were previously focused on don’t wield the necessary influence or demonstrate the right interest. This matrix is meant to bring clarity to your decision-making — who should I target and why? By the end of this exercise, you should have a cluster of audience groups in the upper-right hand quadrant, appropriately primed and positioned to help achieve your project’s objectives.

Hint: if you don’t have anything in this quadrant, start over!

How many target audiences should you pick? Don’t fall into the trap of trying to say everything to everyone, because almost always, you end up saying nothing to no one. There is no magic number, less is more. Your decision will vary based on the particularities of the project and problem you’re tackling. At Hyperakt, we’ve always used 4 and have generally felt this was sufficient for communications pieces.

Now that you’re clear on who exactly to target, let’s get started.

Method 1: Jobs to be done

Jobs to be done is a wonky term for a really powerful methodology that has origins in disruptive innovation practices pioneered by Clay Christensen. The core idea is as follows:

Users “hire” products to do a “job” for them.

A job is shorthand for what an individual seeks to accomplish in a given circumstance. When I go to a store to buy a raincoat, I’m not just buying the raincoat, I am in fact buying protection from the rain. Every time it rains, I will “hire” the raincoat from my closet to protect me from the elements and keep me dry. This framework is a subtle but compelling shift.

Think less about what you’re making and more about why you’re making it.

What would jobs to be done look like if we translated it into the world of nonprofit communications?

Audiences hire stories to do a job for them.

No different from concrete things or products people can buy in a store, every story or communications piece you put out into the world should be crafted to accomplish a specific job for your audience.

Digital Campaign Strategy without Jobs to be done

Let’s say you’re working on a fundraising campaign. Your goals might be as follows:

  1. Build a website to house the campaign
  2. Lay out the facts
  3. Make a solid case for the need
  4. Raise money

As a result, you might conclude that you need the following to achieve your goals:

  • Slick, interactive microsite
  • Compelling, easy-to-understand data points or infographics
  • Frictionless, online donation experience

Digital Campaign Strategy with Jobs to be done

What if you were to run the same campaign through the lens of the jobs to be done framework?

Start with a specific target audience. In this case, you may have determined she is an early-30s professional who is already passionate about your campaign issue and primed to take action. Let’s call her Renee.

What would Renee “hire” this campaign to do for her?

  1. Show off to her social circle
  2. Convince her friends to care about the issue
  3. Continue learning about the issue for her own personal growth

Based on these “jobs”, you may then conclude that you need the following for your fundraising campaign:

  • Social media badges to demonstrate to the world that she donated (fulfilling job #1)
  • A “donate-and-tag-5-friends” feature to gently pressure peers to get involved (fulfilling job #2)
  • Email sign-up and drip campaign to direct Renee to additional reading materials and resources that satiate her curiosity (fulfilling job #3)

The ideas generated without jobs to be done do not represent bad thinking. The microsite, infographics, donation experience are all necessary pieces. But they simply get at the basic requirements for a decent online campaign experience. Table stakes. With jobs to be done, you have to consider the campaign audience and consider why this campaign might be useful to them. The ideas generated with jobs to be done are concrete, specific, and dare I say, innovative! Jobs to be done help you go beyond the basics and start brainstorming tools, features, and content to get your audience what it needs.

JsTBD are helpful because they can help you:

  1. Identify the right problem to solve
  2. Create content that is valuable and useful to your audiences’ specific needs
  3. Generate strategic ideas for features, tools, messages, etc.

Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of jobs to be done. As humans, we are always juggling practical, personal, and social desires. The jobs to be done framework can expand to meet this complexity head on, helping creators of all stripes to innovate for the complex human beings we all are.

I’ve barely scratched the surface. I myself am not an expert, rather a curious and eager learner who is always reading and evolving my understanding. If you’re interested in learning more about jobs to be done, check out the following articles and resources:

Know Your Customers’ Jobs to be Done by Clay Christensen (pioneer of this framework) for Harvard Business Review
Innovating with Jobs to be Done, a great story-based intro to the concept
What is Jobs to be Done?, a thorough overview of what it is and isn’t
Slideshare on Jobs to be Done

Method 2: Proto-personas

Whereas jobs to be done is laser-focused on internal drivers and ensuring the supreme (personal, social, emotional) utility of your product or story, personas are useful for understanding attitudes and behaviors of individuals who operate in complex environments subject to external forces on any one person. A persona is usually a product of many hours (sometimes hundreds) of synthesized user research. A proto-persona is a low-budget hack that is created using assumptions and the personal experience of the creator.

Create a proto-persona by asking a series of questions related to four major categories:

  • Who this individual?
  • What is their current behavior?
  • What do they want to accomplish?
  • What are their challenges?

Creating proto-personas can you help you think of your audiences as real human beings, with past experiences, current needs, constraints, and behaviors, and future goals. Partly because of its more narrative nature, proto-personas give the creator room to zoom out, ask about, and consider the influence of system-level forces on individual behavior and decision-making.

Conducted as a group activity with your wider team, persona creation can help your stakeholders build a shared understanding and common language around the organization’s audiences. This can ultimately lead to better alignment over the course of your work, providing everyone a common lens through which to make informed decisions.

Wait, but what about research? I see people starting to cringe when I mention that proto-personas don’t require research. But how then can this method be trusted? Won’t the creator’s biases or lack of information corrupt the integrity of the persona? What about data and evidence?

Hesitance and skepticism is understandable. It’s important to state that this approach, in a world replete with money and time, is not the gold standard. Given the constraints that most non-profits face (i.e. low budgets, low resources, no expertise), I would argue that a proto-persona, though imperfect, is almost always better than no persona at all.

Moreover, consider what we mean when we say “research”. Proto-personas don’t require traditional research (going out “into the field”, talking to end-users and beneficiaries, etc.), but they do require you to consult reliable experts. Talking to your colleagues and stakeholders can serve as research. They are likely interacting with potential audiences of your organization on a daily basis. If you need to create a high-net-worth donor persona, walk over to your development manager’s desk. Ask her a few questions. She will most definitely have a lot to say about what these individuals think about, what motivates or scares them, etc. If you need to create a grantee-specific persona, walk over to a program manager and borrow their expertise. When you’re strapped for time or money, tap into the abundance of information that already exists within your organization and do your best to create a reliable snapshot of your audiences with the information they give you.

Time and time again, we’ve found personas to be an eye-opening exercise for our clients. The method forces everyone who undertakes it to step out of their own biases, start to build real empathy, and raise the bar for coming up with smarter communications strategy and solutions.

Method 3: User Research

User research is the term for a variety of methods including qualitative interviews, ethnographic observation, focus groups, and more. This final method is the benchmark approach for knowing your audiences. In a world where your organization has time and money, user research should be a standard part of your communications process.

User research at Hyperakt usually takes the form of interviews or focus groups. It can happen in one-on-one settings, in group settings, over the phone, over video call, or in-person. The questions you should ask will depend on the context. In general, there are four major buckets to aim for:

  • What are you, the audience, trying to achieve? And what is motivating you?
  • What pains or challenges do you experience when trying to achieve these goals?
  • How might this thing I’ve created [product, story, campaign, website, etc.] fit into your current role or your current world?
  • What aspects of what I’ve created could benefit you? What do you stand to gain?

Each of these buckets maps to a specific output (jobs to be done, value proposition, design opportunities, validation or ideas for refinement) that will provide insights, further your understanding of the audience, and elevate your communications strategy.

Why is user research useful?

  • Gather insights direct from the source, with no middle person to distort the results
  • Build a layered and comprehensive understanding for your audience
  • Validate your assumptions or find strategic ways to iterate and refine

User research is particularly helpful if you can deploy it as an exploratory exercise early in your process. Use it to refine your understanding of the problem, deepen your knowledge of the landscape and audiences, identify specific communications opportunities, and develop clear value propositions.

Here are some great resources and further reading for conducting successful user interviews:

Starter Questions for User Research
The Art of the User Interview
, a comprehensive overview

Now, go forth!

Jobs to be done, proto-personas, and user research are not mutually exclusive. As you move from option one to two to three, the methods grow in complexity and scope, with jobs to be done being the most narrow, focused, and functional and user research between the most broad, complex, and resource-intensive. They can stack on top of each other and piggy back off each other’s benefits (think of jobs to be done as the most microscopic of methods, giving you a high-precision tool to narrow in on what matters most).

If you decide to adopt any or all of these methods, know that understanding your audience is not a one-and-done scenario. It is ongoing process, a “trialogue” (three-way conversation) between the creator (you!), the project stakeholders, and project audiences. Knowing your audience is a mindset, a default setting you can always train yourself to operate at over time.

These methodologies are meant to give you an easy way to start. No matter what your situation — start somewhere, start small, start anyway. As story creators, we owe it to ourselves to know who we are telling our stories to. Now, go forth!

Written by

Hyperakt crafts transformative brands and digital storytelling experiences for clear-eyed champions of social justice and creativity.

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