Audience and the Boundaries It Makes

As Part III of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication explains, there are a number of factor key to the field, chief among them is audience. This is nothing new. The idea of audience driven content has ruled the world for ages, well before literacy, digital or otherwise, became the rule instead of the exception.

Audience is everything.

We are taught to think about audience almost as soon as we begin formal schooling, maybe even before that. It’s built into the very systems that sell us the houses we live in, food we eat, cars we drive, and classes we attend. Technical communicators have to look at audience from the other side of the glass. It is so important to us and what we do as content managers, translators, technical writers and edits, UX designers, and professors.

The question becomes, how does that information serves us, as technical communicators, as citizens, and as audience members?

A powerful point is made in Chapter 8 of Spilka when it states,

“She [Longo] contends that the ‘idea of a universal community … is as illogical as it is compelling.’ As she puts it, ‘In order to form a community, some people have to be included and others excluded … Without boundaries, the community ceases to exist” (p. 201)

I had to stop and reread this sentence a second time because it rings with so much truth. The idea of community has been expanded as a result of ever increasing technological advances. It’s not just about where you live anymore. Social media has changed the way we relate to one another by allowing us to relate to people we can never meet. Sharing and exchanging knowledge, culture, techniques, and even basic discourse has become the new normal. We all have opinions and technology has given us the platforms to disperse those as far and as wide as it reaches.

How has mass media accounted for this difference? The Internet is where it’s at in terms of advertising. Air time has been subsumed by streaming and working in the modern age means working online.

Companies who want to sell us things, government entities who want to be elected, professors who want to teach us lessons all have to follow a simple structure: meet the people where they live.

But conducting audience analysis and creating audience-driven content means figuring out who to target. Now, this may not be intended to be exclusive, but it does certainly create an “Us vs. Them” mentality. Spreading yourself too thin means that your message is less likely to hit the mark. With the rise of the Internet and online culture, casting your dragnet without key targets means spending tens of thousands of dollars and battling Ad Blockers, Virtual Private Networks, and other measures users put into place to shield themselves.

When we are talking about pure marketing concepts, this divide cannot be so clear cut. Selling jewelry or cars or textbooks is based on a two-pronged attack: create and maintain a loyal customer base and attract new customers at the same time.

Do we do this as technical communicators? I’m not so sure. A lot of my work in the field is based on fulfilling established needs. As a government contractor, I work to fulfill the requirements established by the client. I am not involved in enticing new customers, just making the already established customer happy. This work does take place, in my case at a higher internal level. Freelancers of course do this automatically in order to keep afloat

On the other hand, on a personal level, this is what’s necessary for technical communicators, at least for me, as job seekers. Through practice, academics, networking, and general curiosity, we work to establish ourselves with steady work and paying clients, with coursework and portfolios. By nature of the field, we also have to keep an eye out for emerging trends and technologies to stay current and up to date.

So where do our boundaries lie? How do we decide what and who to keep and who to throw away? For us, this is an even bigger challenge. Our field is still in flux. There are so many professional titles, so many technical and soft skills, so many things that make up the “technical communications” spectrum. Do we even need to create boundaries then?

To my mind, they are created by companies and contract mandates. By others in our field conducting research and creating standards. By professional organizations like the Society for Technical Communication.

Image result for boundaries

Source: (http://www.ableseattle.com/boundaries.html)

Where do your boundaries lie?

Citation

Blakeslee, Ann M. (2010). Addressing Audience in a Digital Age. In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp.199 – 2529). New York, NY. Routledge.

Posted on October 9, 2016, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Leonard, your work as a government contractor makes for an interesting case study as I can imagine it’s so internally task-driven and, as you mention as part of the job seeker discussion, evidenced by artifacts you can (or perhaps cannot for proprietary reasons AKA boundaries) share with prospective employers in a portfolio. So if you cannot, you need to be able to capture the essence of that work in a job letter or interview. Would you say that’s another hurdle to the job search, on top of keeping up with technologies and trends?

  2. Audience is everything. As we’ve learned, it is so important to consider your audience when it comes to communication and especially technical communication. Considering the end user is vital to communicating effectively. If we don’t consider to whom we’re speaking (or relating information), then we’re not only doing a disservice to that eventual audience, but to our company, our team, and ourselves.

    I experienced this first hand with my last job. Mobility Management is still a very new concept and as a profession, and I realized I was having a hard time explaining my program to people despite my elevator speech. So I decided to make a program brochure that included information all about what Mobility Management does, what is involved, and the services provided by the mobility manager. I worked very hard on the brochure and after showing it to my boss, she made me redo the whole thing. She asked me who my audience was and I told her “everyone”. But she pointed out that I had used complex language and lengthy phrases, and that wasn’t appropriate for the people I served–older adults, people with disabilities, and low income members of the audience. My language was too specialized and technical, and I had to make those adjustments so that the brochure was user friendly to anyone who might pick it up.

  3. The “Us vs. Them” mentality intrigues me because it seems so combative in the friendly world of technical communications! I wasn’t sure whether I agree with that part of the chapter because of the increasingly blurred lines of user-generated content. As we’ve discussed in earlier weeks, readers are driving more of the content and changing the role of tech comm. The boundary between audience and author is in some ways disappearing.

    However, I think you and the author are absolutely right that to meaningfully define a community, it must have criteria that excludes others. Perhaps there is a benefit to more narrowly defining our audience so that we can be more targeted with our message. I completely empathize with Molly’s comment about trying to write something for “everyone” and missing the key audience. Perhaps when we’re dealing with user-generated content, they innately understand the audience because they are a part of it? The closer you get to the reader, the more effectively you can target your message for that community?

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