Dave Odom: The audience comes first

An audience

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An effective communications strategy begins with knowing your audience -- its demographics, needs and habits -- before figuring out what and how you want to communicate, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

Time and again, an influential leader will approach me with an idea he believes Christians need to hear. The executive wants my opinion on how to build a website to communicate the idea.

I always respond with a question: “Who would come to this website?”

Wealthy donors, passionate advocates, creative educators and others have plenty to say, but who is listening? How is it possible to attract an audience already swimming in information from Google, emails, tweets, feeds, newsletters and status updates? Given how easy it is to give in to a short attention span and click around and away, what strategies help keep an audience’s attention?

In working with the amazing group of communicators that produces Faith & Leadership, I have learned that effective communications strategy begins with understanding the audience. Who are they? Are you in touch with them now? What do they need? How do they consume information?

It is very easy to get caught up with the message I want to communicate and just assume that an audience will want what I have to offer. That mindset is all about me, my project, my work. But effective communications means cultivating a relationship with the people you’re trying to reach and putting yourself in their shoes -- thinking clearly about the intersection of their needs and your message, as well as your goals for what the audience will think, feel or do.

Occasionally, a leader will tell me she wants to hire a marketing consultant or communications director. “Make sure you are ready to work,” I always warn. Excellent communications professionals come loaded with questions, creating more work for the organization by demanding clarity about the audience, the message and the impact.

My church is getting ready for a building project that would demolish and reconstruct the sanctuary, which is connected to the building housing the church’s award-winning child development center. I was asked to help draft a document for the parents.

To assist in this task, we were given the materials drafted for the church’s fundraising effort. Of course, parents who bring a child before dawn to the back door of the education building don’t have the same questions in mind as donors who enter through the sanctuary porch. The building project was the same, but the differences in the audience meant that 90 percent of the document had to be rewritten.

The discipline of building a relationship with the people you are trying to reach recognizes that having the attention of an audience is a precious gift. It takes a long time to build a loyal audience -- and consistent effort to keep it. A single story or essay can go viral and attract tens of thousands of readers, but loyal readers are needed for long-term impact.

I was once part of a denomination that shifted the focus of its staff’s work from audience cultivation and retention to the provision of services. Every employee’s responsibilities were either translated into services or eliminated. Over time, the denomination eliminated most of the jobs that had previously focused on cultivating loyalty.

The unintended result was the replacement of a family culture with a customer mentality. Family members can work through all sorts of relationship challenges, but customers are mostly focused on low price or other benefits. In communications terms, the denomination alienated part of its audience by devaluing the relationship. Once that part of the audience was lost, the denomination could not draw on the previous relationship and had to compete with others for customers.

Religious institutional leaders have a remarkable advantage. They start with the loyalty of an audience. Pastors often address 30 or 40 percent of their membership on any given Sunday morning (and more on Easter!). Others seek out the sermon online. Loyal readers often follow church or denominational newsletters or social media offerings. The trust and loyalty of an audience is easy to take for granted, but it can be lost and is difficult to rebuild.

Starting with the audience seems so simple, but it requires disciplined attention -- every time, for every message.