Strategy & Marketing

Why Researching Your Audience Matters

In today’s media-driven culture, where we’re being bombarded with up to 5,000 media messages per day, our distraction level is off the chart, and technology has given us more choices than ever before.  Never before in history has it been more important to understand the person to whom our message is directed.  That’s why research is so critical. This is an illustration of a fictional transcript of an radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.  It’s a good story about the importance of knowing the identity of the other side: 


Americans: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.


Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

We’re blind unless we know exactly who we’re talking to….

I’m not a researcher.  I’m a producer and director of TV and film programming.  And I consult with churches and ministries to help them use the media better.

But rarely a day goes by that I’m not looking at some recent research, or reading a book based on research.  Because without understanding the culture I’m working in, the tools at my disposal, and the audience I’m speaking to, I might as well be whistling Dixie.

There’s a saying that if you think you’re a leader but no one’s following you then you’re not leading, you’re just out for a walk.  In the same way, no matter how great or anointed your message, if no one’s listening, you’ve failed.

To the researchers and intellectuals who are reading this – what you do matters.

To the rest of us – it’s time to start listening.

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  1. I am a lighthouse to my students but some are blinded by their technology and believe because they metaphorically have their own GPS and know the latest high tech tricks they don’t need my advice. It’s only after they graduate and have landed on the rocks a couple of times that they call for help. At those times my head says “Sorry, out of service”, but in my heart they need help to change the world.

  2. Knowing your audience is important.  But having a compelling message is also important. My church recently returned from a trip to Israel.  The age span was 18 to 90 – yet everyone bonded and were equally engaged with a compelling impact israel had on their lives…

    I love research.  I build strategy based on research. My agency does research for our clients. We need to know who we are talking to…

    But, which is more important – who we are speaking to, or what we are saying?

    Had the Canadians clarified their message in the first transmission, perhaps the ensuing debate could have been avoided.

  3. Mark, I fully agree that message is also critical, but I don’t think the question of which is MORE important can even really be answered. I’d submit that the two issues (who we are speaking to, and what we are saying) are inseparably important. Succeed wonderfully at one but fail at the other and the total package is likely a failure.

    An oversimplified example: say you produce a wonderful movie with great acting, great script, etc. The message is there. But the movie is really designed for teens and young adults, and not fully understanding that audience, you end up with a wonderful children’s movie. Now try successfully marketing that to people 16 – 22 years old. You’ll likely have a wonderful children’s movie that failed in the marketplace because, as good as the message was, you didn’t understand your target audience and you shot way under their heads.

    Similarly, if you have a brilliant strategy for understanding and reaching the right target audience, but you have nothing much to say to them, the end result is the same. We’ve all seen plenty of films that are perfectly targeted at the right audience, but are just terrible and fail because the content isn’t there.

    A failure many strategists and marketers have is putting great importance on what THEY bring to the table. Product designers want to talk about how critical great design is. Writers and speakers want to emphasize the importance of great communication. Researchers want to emphasize how critical research is. TV producers…well, we won’t even go there. 🙂

    If any one of these elements fails, the whole thing can fall apart no matter how great the other elements are. Just like a brand new Corvette with the fuel injection not working, or the steering not working, or the brakes not working. It all has to be there for the full effect.

  4. I’m a social scientist who happens to be a Christian and I know firsthand the value and limitations of solid scientific research. I hear the word “research” tossed around willy nilly all the time. Someone says, “I did some research about it on the Internet.” What this person actually did was conduct a search using Google or some other search engine. Research involves more than looking online for stuff. It is guided by theory, supported by carefully collected data, analyzed in a rigorous manner, and applied to specific situations. Christians often have an aversion for scientific research because it involves investigation rather than revelation. It seems too prone to human manipulation and rationalization. While we certainly need to be critical, suspicious, and careful when we conduct, read, and use research this does not mean all that we learn is tainted and useless. God expects his creatures to investigate, analyze, and study his world. Jesus said to his disciples, “Consider the lily, how it grows” (Matt 6:28). The Greek word that Jesus used for “consider” is katamathete which is an intensified form meaning “study, investigate, or examine carefully.” Apparently Jesus thought his disciples could derive useful information from their bontanical inquiry. True discipleship is not contrary to critical intellectual and scienific investigation of the world. Investigating how flowers grow would help the Lord’s disciples learn how Christians grow so that they could cooperate with that growth process for the good of the Christian and the kingdom. Thus Christians should not only be wise consumers of research but active agents in conducting it . . . to the glory of God.

  5. I like to browse the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life Web site ( to get an idea of some of the studies that have been done. Knowing your audience is very important. Your message must be able to reach people where they are at in their lives…physically, mentally and spiritually. I’ve heard is said this way…”Fish where the fish are”. Research helps to make sure your message is there…at the right time.

    Phil – great posts on your blog and within your books. Some of the comments in your Branding Faith and The Last TV Evangelist book might suggest you may be interested in the content presented within the Beyond Today program ( This Sunday (July 11) the Beyond Today program will be airing on WGN America at 8:30 AM EST. So if your are up early on Sunday morning (5:30 AM Pacific) take a few minutes and let me know what you think. If that program doesn’t strike a chord with you, visit the Web site. You said in Branding Faith, “…I wish more churches in America taught deeper doctrinal principles.”

  6. A lot of audience research goes into Media Buying, especially TV. For Spot TV campaigns Neilsen is used to research audience rating points, shares, demos, CPM’s, etc. Spot TV is a unique animal….today we buy a lot more 1/2 hr TV (ministries/DRTV/infomercials) these typically target women and “slightly” older adult demos, therefore we still use research, but a whole lot more common sense, over the years you learn where most fish are biting. Research is a good thing, but in today’s economy you have to focus on common sense and the bottomline ROI…that’s media return on investment..including lead generation, ministry results and financial ROI.

  7. Phil,

    You are dead on that we need to understand the community were are trying to reach or we will crash upon the reefs of irrelevance. Too many times, churches assume that their community is “just like them” when shifts have happened underneath their feet.

    Many “church folk” aren’t trained in the art of conducting consumer research. I’ve been lucky enough to be a Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble and be given the “PhD” equivalent of learning from consumers.

    It is about time we start listening, instead of assuming what they need. We may need to skip church for 30 days, create a digital listening strategy or seek demographic information.

    We need to learn how to walk a mile in another’s shoes:


  8. But not an ironic point?

    No irony in all of these posts?

    No irony at all?

    Nothing deeper?

    Nothing to see?

    Nothing to hear?

    No humor from Him who sees the beginning from the end?

    No wake up call to the wake up callers and audience thereof, most of whom are not convicted by first lauding a false story, then still lauding it after learning it is fiction? Holy Irony, Batman! If the joke is not on us, then who?

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