Recruitment and Digital Audiences

Recruitment and Digital Audiences

Blakeslee in “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” describes technical communication as it interacts with user-centered design, or UX. As communicators, it’s ingrained in us to keep the audience as the forefront of creating any materials, both in writing and design, so that the audience engaging with the material can process it easier, quicker and more intuitively. However, with the shift to digital communication, specifically digital reading of documents, it’s critical that we re examine if the audience has changed. Blakeslee says, “The thinking here is that technology potentially makes our writing accessible to a much broader audience than before” (p. 201).


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Anything published on the internet could essentially be accessed by any user with a computer. These users have different identifies, cultures, languages, preferences, etc. So how can documents, which are published online, be written with a specific audience in mind? Can they be written for a specific audience? What boundaries are in place to create these communities.

These questions from Blakeslee reminded me of recruitment materials I utilize at work. As a reminder, I work at UW-Madison in the Mechanical Engineering Department. There has recently been a major push to create new online and in-person accelerated Master of Science programs for our department.

Download the PDF here.

We have a variety of target audiences for these programs, but one of the target audiences in international students. We partner with a number of schools in India and China and they are some of the student we aim to recruit into these programs. I don’t work directly with creating or distributing recruitment materials, but our graduation admissions office does and I am included in many of these meetings. In the early stages of discussing partnerships with schools and these programs, we knew immediately that we would have to adjust our materials to fit the international audience. Some of these adjustments included re-ordering information on the flier so international tuition rates are listed first and selling not only the program but the City of Madison and the State of Wisconsin as well. Whereas with resident students, they likely already know about the State of Wisconsin and City of Madison. Additionally, it was important to adjust the language so that it fit the skill level of the international students.

To test these materials, we started with developing personas, as Blakeslee discusses, but really found the most value out of interacting with readers. As Blakeslee says, “another valuable heuristic for learning about and understanding reader needs is interaction, especially with actual readers” (p.208). We at UW-Madison are lucky to have a number of international students who are from the universities in India and China that we are partnering with, so we have access to these students who are already on our campus. The design team developed the materials and then tested those materials in a session with volunteer students from these partner universities to watch how they read and understood the information. (Thank goddess for free pizza, it really brings the graduate students into a room!) By watching these students process the information and having a discussion with them it was easy to make changes to the document based on that specific audience.

It may sound like an ideal situation, and maybe it is, but it worked. We have had positive feedback from the materials we have sent to these universities and our enrollment numbers from students at those universities coming into our programs continues to grow. So  yeah, it’s difficult to keep the audience in mind when publishing documents for the whole world to see, but in reality there are almost always going to be some type of restraints on the community of people you are targeting with messaging. For us, it was retraining the target audience to international mechanical engineering students who were possibly interested in a masters degree. Knowing those boundaries narrowed the audience, even though the information is published on a public facing website for the world to see.

Posted on November 9, 2018, in Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Teaching, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Brittney,

    As I was reading Ch. 6, Author Barry Thatcher hit on some points about writing across cultures that I had never considered. Not only do you have to think of what they may like to see, but also to consider what may be offensive in that country vs in the USA. His comparison of the two letters, one to his colleagues n the US and the other to his colleagues in Mexico, gave a great example of some of those cultural differences with regard to tone and overall presentation of the information. This is one area where I feel the least comfortable as I go back into the field of technical communications. I can write in English and I know my country, but I won’t even begin to say that I understand what goes into creating something cross-cultural.

    When I worked for the water heater company in the early 2000’s, we did one professional grade water heater (for large businesses) and once I finished the English version of the use and care instructions, we had to get them translated into French. Of course, we outsourced the work. I had studied some French in college, so when I got the manual back for review, I wanted to see if I could read it. I started noticing that a lot of the wording was different – and not just in a different order in the sentence, which is common in translation, but in a different order within the page and then paragraph structure. I called the translator and I still remember him telling me that it was due to some of those nuances that were less acceptable in that language and with that people group.


    • Rebecca, I was in the same boat as you. Until this project I hadn’t created anything that was specifically targeted to a different culture, but with practice and talking to people within the culture I was creating materials for I learned a lot about what was working and what wasn’t. You can’t expect to be perfect on the first try, but as long as you are considering the other culture from the beginning and understanding that there are differences that’s what’s important! From there you can learn anything.


  2. Hi Brittney,

    Universities are a great resource for finding international subjects for usability testing. Professional associations can also provide ways to find test subjects through their membership directory, chapters, meetings and conferences.

    Usability testing is so important, but most organizations don’t do it. They often use focus groups, which can be biased and ineffective. Plus, a lot of people don’t realize you only need a few test subjects. According to, only 5 users are needed to find the same usability problems you would with a lot more test subjects. Here is a link with more information:

    There are also a lot of online resources today that can help with usability testing. They provide easy ways to record test subjects as well as recruit participants. I found this article on Hubspot that lists 15 usability testing tools:

    Thanks for your post,


    • Angie, thanks for those resources! Those will definitely be helpful in the future if I continue being involved in usability testing.


  3. Wow, I’m impressed with your ME department’s resources and the attention being paid to attract both audiences. As a former program director of the online undergraduate PCEM program, I received 1 course release and was merely told, “Go work with Marketing to come up with a plan.” While we did attract some place bound working adults who had completed their Associates, retention was poor, maybe only 40%.

    As you all know, graduate students are generally more committed and, in many cases, prefer online education, so I think you’re at an advantage!

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