Audiences and Messaging

A key part of developing your communications plan is understanding who your audience is and what their needs are.


Not everyone is in your audience, and not all audiences are important. You need to prioritize. It’s the Pareto principle of the vital few and the trivial many.

Start with what you know about your audience’s perspective. Answer questions like: Who are they? How can you best reach them? Are there specific segments of your audience that you’d like to reach? What’s preventing you from reaching them?

Think about ways to reach out to your audience, either directly or indirectly. What do they read? Who are the influencers in your field (e.g., specific people, websites, news sources)? One exercise that can be helpful is to imagine that you are your intended audience. Think about the ways in which you’d like to be communicated to. Which mediums would most appeal to you? What messages would you be most receptive to?

A survey of your audience can help you better understand their perspective and offer valuable insights into how best to reach them. Surveys can reveal basic information such as the age, income and zip codes of your audience, but they can also reveal detailed information related to the campaigns and communications initiatives you are launching. For example, you may be trying to encourage more people to sign up for an upcoming workshop — a survey can tell you how your audience likes to be informed about upcoming trainings and whether they prefer to register online or in-person.

If you know of a publication that your audience reads regularly, see if that outlet publishes a media guide for advertisers. This can give you valuable information about the demographics of the audience you’re trying to reach.

Audience strategy

With your audiences identified, you might want to identify a basic strategy associated with each. Say “current special education teachers” is a core audience. Your strategy might be something like, “Focus on the impact of new intervention techniques, mainly in the weeks prior to the start of academic terms.”

This can also be used to map and tailor broad messages to a specific audience.


Here’s a fun exercise you can do with others in your organization: Give everyone a piece of paper and ask them to write ONE sentence that answers the question, What do we do? Give them a few minutes to really think about it, then go around the room and listen to everyone’s answers.

Chances are, you’ll get a lot of variation. Hopefully everyone’s in the same ballpark, but that’s almost not the point. The point is to watch people. Some will really have to think about it, or at least how to articulate it succinctly, and that hints at the problem that most organizations run into once they get into comms planning: They rarely consider the question, What do we do?

Answering that question in a clear and simple way usually gives you your first key message, e.g. “We provide training that helps the communities involved with special education be better at their jobs and improve outcomes for the people they serve.”

From there, get into some of the traits that set you apart or make you unique, e.g. “We are the only source of evidence-based, onsite special education training in the tri-county area.”

You’re going for three, maybe four short, declarative statements that say, this is who we are and what we stand for. From there, try to distill even those into a single strong, evocative word, like “reputable” or “organized.” Dig deep.

You’re going for three, maybe four short, declarative statements that say, this is who we are and what we stand for.

Other good questions you can ask yourselves:

  • What service do you actually provide?
  • Why does your department/program exist?
  • Could we explain our work to a child? If not, how important are the nuances outside these walls, really?
  • What would happen if we ceased to exist? Is the service we provide essential or optional? Where would people turn in our stead?
  • What problem are we here to solve? Do we have concrete examples of how we’ve solved similar problems?
  • What is the value of our service to society? To the marketplace? To the university? To prospective students? What do people in our field love about us?

In asking these questions, you are trying to get to simple truths about yourself. If it all feels oversimplified or reductive, you’re probably on the right track.

Messaging should be consistent and “repeated” often to even have a faint chance of sticking. It’s unlikely that a single message is going to accomplish all of your results; most people need to hear a consistent drum beat of information before they retain information about your organization.

Key messages should be the seed of the information you wish to convey rather than fully polished taglines. You should be able to use them for everything from developing social media content to writing a speech for the director. For example, if your organization is aiming to be viewed as a knowledgeable leader with countrywide reach, a key message might be: “The XYZ Center is working nationally to create thoughtful solutions for special education professionals.”

Key messages help simplify the process of developing content. It becomes a blueprint that you can follow and you can continue to add new messaging and refine older messaging based on the feedback you receive.