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How Audience Research Is Keeping Up with a Changing World

Everyone has altered their daily behaviors to adapt to a world in which we must stay at home as much as possible. As our users’ lives have dramatically changed, our approach to understanding them must also change.

Audience research is changing—along with a changing world—to help us on our quest to better understand audience behavior, needs, frustrations, and successes and ensure products and services are successful. As organizations navigate and adapt to connecting with users in new ways, here is what we see as valuable going forward.

1. Audience research is here to stay.

For nonprofits and government agencies, gathering insights and feedback from audiences is critical to effectively carry out their mission and achieve lasting impact. As the world shifts further into the digital environment, understanding changing audience behaviors and needs is crucial as organizations adapt and shift their priorities. For example, many organizations have had to shift their resources and budgets to create engaging virtual events and online resources for their constituents, audience research is adapting its modes and methods to better understand the behaviors and needs of new and changing audiences. In addition to gaining insights to craft more positive online experiences for users, audience research is also an opportunity to create new feedback loops that have been especially critical during this year’s pandemic.

2. Empathy when planning research is absolutely vital.

 Empathetic audience research centers and amplifies the voices of research subjects without causing harm or inconvenience to them. In a time of unprecedented hardship for millions, is it possible to conduct research without burdening participants? When deciding to conduct research with a population, it is necessary to reflect on the timing and impact on participants before moving forward:

  • Is the research we are conducting essential to carrying out the mission of the organization? 
  • Can research be conducted during a different span of time that would be less burdensome for participants (e.g., if the audience is educators, could research be conducted during a vacation break versus the start of a school term)? 
  • How can the information that we need be collected in a way that minimizes the impact on our audiences?
  • How can researchers design studies that foster reciprocity, i.e., considering an incentive or stipend for participating, invite participants to be an extension of the project team?

3. Risk planning helps to navigate uncertainties.

“Planning for the unexpected” has taken on a new meaning since March 2020. Alongside conversations about research ethics, forecasting challenges through risk planning is an effective way to mitigate future roadblocks. Projecting obstacles, such as low audience engagement or slowed internal approval processes, makes issues easier, and causes less interruption in your process. Can you scale down the target size of your usability test if you anticipate lower engagement or need to handle recruitment differently? If you are experiencing a delay in research approval, are there other existing data sources such as web analytics that can be used to help answer a research question? 

Risk planning is particularly helpful when working with audiences who have been highly affected by the pandemic, such as public health officials and healthcare professionals. Contingency planning for natural disasters, pandemics, or other large-scale events is not entirely possible, but having a plan B or C helps to navigate uncertainty more quickly and confidently.

4. Remote and unmoderated research improves access and reach.

Adapting the way we conduct research has also been critical over the last year. Beyond research becoming 100% remote, shorter, unmoderated studies (i.e., research tasks that can be completed alone by a participant), are proving to be effective in terms of participation. Unmoderated research provides more flexibility for participants to complete a task using their own devices and at a time that works best within their personal schedules. Additionally, expanding ways for audiences to participate in research, such as providing audio-only alternatives to participants who may feel uncomfortable or unable to share their video, also improves access and reach. 

5. Diverse research samples result in more inclusive outcomes.

Ongoing health, economic, and justice disparities between racial groups in the United States and throughout the world have been made increasingly more visible by the global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. This has led many organizations to ask themselves: how can we be more inclusive? When it comes to audience research, it’s imperative to examine the diversity of research samples. Who has previously been included in research samples in the past? Who has been excluded from these samples? Depending on the answers to these questions, you may need to adapt your collection methods to expand your audience feedback loop. 

6. Ongoing challenges remain.

Though there are many techniques that can be employed to conduct meaningful research remotely, there are still ongoing challenges. In a pandemic, some methods of research are simply less feasible to do safely. For instance, studies that require in-person observation over a prolonged period will need to be paused. Additionally, conducting participant research that requires screen-sharing can make reaching users that experience low-bandwidth internet speeds quite difficult. Thankfully there are still many tools at the researcher’s disposal to gather near-term input from groups that can move research forward.

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