It always comes back to your audience

For the most part, writing for a digital audience requires the same considerations as writing for traditional audiences. You must first look at the rhetorical situation. To do this, technical communicators must ask themselves a series of questions, including this question:

Who is the target of my message?

As you know, your audience can be broad and varied, or very specific. The problem with the digital world is that the audience tends to be the former, which can make it very challenging to decide how to create your message. How do you write a universal message for a non-universal group of people?

Well, I hate to say it, but you have to generalize the audience members. You can’t feasibly create a message that will work for each and every individual out there, so you just have to try to identify the most common features so you can address MOST of them.

How do you identify these common attributes? One of the best ways is learning directly from the user. Blakeslee (2010) talked about interacting with readers in this week’s readings – what you might call a “collaborative” audience or user-centered design. Of course, this hinges on having the audience provide feedback in order to help improve technical communications. However, like in the case study from TaxSoft, what if you don’t have direct contact with the customers? Or, in my own personal experience, what if it’s like pulling teeth to get user feedback?

Audience Challenge #1 – No Contact

In the TaxSoft example, one of the employees interviewed said she had to get secondhand feedback from other departments or review call logs to see what customers were saying during conversations with their call center (p. 208). They did this because she (and her fellow technical writers) didn’t have a direct relationship with the customer. She commented that “writers are not subject-matter experts in our company, and, as such, it would not be appropriate to step into that relationship with our users” (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 209). I think this is very unfortunate. Perhaps this company needs their technical writers to start getting more involved with the customer?

The SecureNet case study, on the other hand, showcased employees who DID have relationships with their customers, going so far as to interview some of these audience members before starting a new project (p. 210).

Audience Challenge #2 – The Unengaged Audience

This is the audience that doesn’t provide feedback, or is very difficult to get feedback from. I have had this experience quite a bit in my place of work. A specific example is the online customer portal we launched earlier this year (that I’ve mentioned in previous blogs). We rolled it out in four groups. After each group was introduced to the site, I sought feedback from group members on the features of the site, if they were using it, what areas they liked best, etc. I probably sent out over 100 surveys and only had three or four returned to me. Those that were returned had little to no helpful feedback. What did I do wrong?

Well, it comes full circle because it has everything to do with the audience. My audience is not terribly tech savvy so many of them just weren’t using the site. Filling out a survey for a service they weren’t using didn’t make sense. For those that WERE using the site, they didn’t send us a survey back because they preferred to tell us in a more personal way. The most useful feedback we received was gathered during a phone conversation. Seems a bit old school, but, again, going back to the type of audience I have (not tech savvy), doing a telephone survey makes more sense.

Fortunately for me, my audience is typically quite specific. This can make it easier for us to create our message, although it’s not foolproof. But, this is actually one of the greatest things about digital technology! If we don’t get the message right the first time, we can change it anytime we want for little to no cost and for a modest amount of labor. With traditional communications (print), it can be time-consuming and costly to make changes. I just think about all those companies out there that still put together catalogs and how much time and resources that must cost them.

stack of catalogs

U-Line is a perfect example. They mail us a catalog once a month. Then, they send us a catalog with each order we place from them. Sometimes, we will get up to six or seven catalogs in a month! We think it’s a waste of paper and also prefer looking up products online anyway. Maybe this company needs to evaluate their audience a little better!

Image source:

Posted on November 10, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Hi Lori:

    This will be the first year that my university is going exclusively with an online catalog, which I think made some people nervous, but mostly we all see it as a great thing. It will allow us to be more nimble in flexing deadlines and make non-substantive revisions (those that won’t affect what binds the students in term of major requirements and whatnot).

    Your story of the survery made me laugh. I suppose it is logical that if most of the people aren’t using the site because they’re not very tech savvy, then it makes sense they wouldn’t fill out an extra survey. I remember you’ve talked about your client demographic before with regard to technology. Will you/your company have the resources to conduct a telephone survey?

    • Hi Evelyn,
      Our account team calls customers on a pretty regular basis so we will just work it in to our conversations as we move forward. We keep a pretty up-to-date checklist of things to discuss with our customers, and it now has one more!

      Good luck with the online catalog!

  2. Being involved with the customer base definitely helps to tailor the message and delivery to meet their needs. I had a refreshing meeting today that reinforced that and reminded me that I should always be on the lookout for ways to streamline the process. I’ve been so busy lately just trying to keep up with updates, that I’ve been neglecting one of the things I really enjoy. With a little extra time, we were able to restructure a portion of the document and make it easier and faster for the users.
    I’ve found that feedback is difficult to get from people through surveys. Feedback usually comes from people who are disappointed or upset, rather than from people who actually have constructive things to say. Even though traditional calls may seem outdated, it is still probably the best way to solicit useful feedback from the audience.

  3. See, all that Rhetorical Theory is making sense now, right???? 🙂 Did you already take User-Centered Research or are you taking it this Spring?

  4. That Dilbert cartoon is hilarious! It’s true though, it seems that anyone that isn’t technology savvy is not a spring chicken!

    The snoozing audience always makes me laugh. I think everyone has been there when they’ve been doing a presentation and no one seems interested. You have to ask, why not, what did they want, what were they expecting that I didn’t give to them?

    • There always seems to be an appropriate Dilbert cartoon for whatever silly, ironic or frustrating work situation you’re experiencing. Have you read The Dilbert Principle? My favorite tip from that book is that you should never answer your phone at work, just let it go to voicemail. Then, when your voicemail is full, and people try to call, they get a message that says your voicemail is full, thus showing that you must be so busy because you have so many people always calling you that you can’t even keep up with your messages. LOL!

  5. I have a similar problem with my educational resources. We have “feature testers” that have early access to new functions and even when I get the release notes done ahead of time, its like pulling teeth to get any feedback. Usually all I get is “It’s great.”

    I am waiting to take the usability class until I get a few more of these classes under my belt.

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