An effective strategy of any shape, size, or scale answers two key questions in detail: whose support do you need to achieve your objective? And how do you get them onside?

Answering those questions starts (and ends) with audience mapping. Sound strategy relies on insights gleaned from actual, rather than perceived, human behaviour; that’s why gaining a rich understanding of your audience should be among the first steps you take in building a campaign.

For that reason, H+K’s planning journey begins with an audience deep dive—not just the quantitative, but the qualitative, too. Datapoints such as age, income, and media consumption habits, while indispensable, can be impersonal – so it’s helpful to channel not only the analytical tendencies of researchers, but also the innate curiosity of ethnographers. An abiding interest in human behaviour and the context in which people make decisions can yield a better understanding of their values, attitudes, and self-perceptions.

As you prepare your next communications strategy, channel your inner ethnographer by keeping the following four considerations top-of-mind.

Facts and insights are different things altogether.

Channel planning – understanding where, when, and how your audiences consume content – is the bread and butter of any successful campaign strategy.

It’s easy to feel like you’ve got audiences covered when you know how much time they spend on Instagram. But in isolation, the information isn’t much more valuable to you than a hammer without a nail. Context is what transforms stale information into a striking insight.

It’s important to know that your audience uses Instagram—but what’s more important is what you can extrapolate from that information. In this case, it’s that they’re likely young, mobile-first, or digital natives; they prefer rich media to static; they’re likelier to engage in social e-commerce than average; and their motivations are probably part altruism and part status-seeking.

You stand out through focus, not by trying to boil the ocean.

It’s incalculably more valuable for three motivated audiences to think highly of you than it is for the entire population to shrug when they hear your name.

Casting the net too wide often leads to inefficiency. Customized, granular insights – such as those uncovered through sophisticated programs offered by companies like Adobe and Salesforce – may come with added expense but are incredibly efficient at cutting through cluttered audience landscapes.

Coalitions win campaigns. That means cobbling together support from enough people to tip the scales in your favour. Political parties do this well: they identify fence-sitters, research what would get them onside, and pack their platforms with tailored promises like tax credits and pilot projects. They understand that mobilising the vote that’s accessible to them is what determines success—so instead of talking to everyone, they focus on those who can hand them a win.

When you get overly simplistic, you risk marrying the incompatible.

Trying to be everywhere and speak to everyone carries with it another serious (and potentially fatal) risk: when you paint in broad strokes, you lose out on detail—and in a world with near-infinite human diversity, detail is your meal ticket.

If you’re trying to communicate with two audiences, one of which exclusively eats broccoli and the other of which won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, how do you deliver content that speaks to both?

The answer is segmentation. If their values or preferences are diametrically opposed, you’re better served by leaning into their differences and capitalising on points of tension rather than glossing over them. Willful neglect of your audiences’ emotional pressure points in the hopes of cutting down on work, fast-tracking planning, or saving on ad budget is unlikely to yield either quality or performance.

You may be misunderstanding the challenge you’re trying to solve.

Much of today’s strategy-speak has a bad habit of removing critical insights about their audience’s emotional state. But when brands and organisations build campaigns that focus exclusively on the rational, they risk being blindsided by an emotional response. If you structure your narrative around facts and figures but don’t take peoples’ values into account, you may misidentify the challenge—and with it, your opportunity.

If you’re trying to get shovels in the ground on a major infrastructure project but are butting up against vitriolic local opposition, don’t ask why the price tag and its billion-dollar economic impact isn’t moving the needle. Ask yourself why they feel threatened in spite of the data; what interests – personal or otherwise – they’re trying to preserve; what their perceptions about their community are; and what they think about the future and their place in it.

Engineer a solution for the problem as they see it, not as you will it.

Parting words

In many ways, we’re on the cusp of an audience renaissance. Shifting ground in the form of cookie-less websites, predictive behaviour tools, data privacy regulations, and disenchantment with global tech giants is changing how brands and organisations can learn about their audiences.

Despite (or even because of) these changes, H+K’s position is simple. At the end of the day, people are just that: people. That’s why the most meaningful exercises in audience mapping, however small or grand they may be, require a whole-of-human approach.

When in doubt, start with that.