Audience research: some approaches and lessons learned

I had the opportunity to attend a conference where I was tasked with learning about a particular subset of the audience attending said conference. To be fair, I was to gain what I could, not come back with a full audience profile and associated personas. However, it was still a daunting task. I thought I’d try a few approaches to accomplish this task, and, in true market research style, rate each approach. I’ll be using a 5-point scale to rate each approach, where 1 is “learned next to nothing about my audience” and 5 is “learned tons about my audience.”

I should start this sequence by saying I tend towards finding the most efficient way to accomplish something. When attending a conference of thousands of people and trying to find the subset that I needed to learn about, it made sense to me to try to find a way to get the most information possible without having to interview thousands of people. I had a few days to try new stuff, and I figured no matter what, I was working towards my goal of learning more about my audience. In other words, even if an approach didn’t work, it could still provide useful information.

Test 1: attending the sessions

My first test was to attend a couple of sessions. The first session was a “how to navigate the conference” session, which I found helpful because they actually identified where I should expect most of my audience to be hanging out, based on the sessions being offered which catered to this audience.

The was a catch, though: there was nothing in the session titles or descriptions that would have identified them as catering to one audience or another. In fact, I heard some of this grumbling from others who were surprised to hear from me that I thought most of the sessions in a particular section of the conference center were targeted at one audience.

At any rate, my idea was to attend sessions geared towards my intended research audience and listen to the questions being asked.

The problem? The sessions were about specific topics, and I was there to try to learn what things were going well for this audience and what things were going poorly. So, while the questions were somewhat helpful, they weren’t exactly getting at what I needed.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Test 2: attending focus groups

I was invited to sit in on some focus groups that were scheduled by another team so that I could have another venue from which to learn. The focus groups were great! The only drawback was, again, they were focused on a specific topic, so the lens I was hearing was somewhat limited. However, this was a great way to get exposure to a sub-subset of my audience.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Test 3: lunch with attendees

Each day, at lunch, I’d go into the dining area and find what looked like the most friendly person or group to sit with. By friendly, I actually mean, “Not avoiding eye contact with others by focusing on their phones.” This was all right, except lunch time conversations tended to go all over the place, and I felt somewhat bad about trying to wrangle information out of these people who really probably wanted a bit of a break from all the industry info they were hearing. I got a couple of good tidbits, but between my lack of desire to interrupt someone’s meal in the cause of research and a lack of a good set of questions to work from, this felt terribly ineffective.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Test 4: the expo hall vendors

In the expo hall, I was able to see a number of things right off the bat. First, I was able to see the vendors and which vendors were getting visited more than others. From an observation perspective, this told me what some of the hot button issues might be for the audience in general (not necessarily my specific audience, but at least an indication of what was catching everyone’s interest). I was also able to see how many people were attending various mini-sessions and attend a few mini-sessions. If I saw a huge crowd, I learned it was either something really interesting being presented by someone or else someone was drawing a name for a giveaway.

I also decided to start chatting with those at the booths, since they were talking to far more people than I could talk to on any given day, and ask a few questions:

  • What are they hearing from my specific audience about the conference itself?
  • What are they hearing from my specific audience about their painpoints?

These two questions were pretty good at getting a conversation going (as well as “What do you do?”). However, at one point, when I asked a particular vendor about what painpoints they were hearing that my audience wanted to have solved, the vendor looked at their byline on the booth and looked at me like, “Can’t you read?” I used that second question less, and stuck more to what were they hearing in general from people in my intended audience and what did they do.

One caveat: I found that when I said I was in market research, I either got the, “Uh oh, whatever I say can and will be used against me,” or else I got the, “OHHHHH, well, let me tell YOU how I feel about your company…” I was sure to always let them know that my purpose was not to conduct competitive analysis of any sort, but rather to better understand an audience attending the conference. That seemed to go a long ways towards allaying most fears.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Test 4: “expo intercept”

Towards the end of the conference, I decided to try out the “mall intercept” method, only I dubbed it the “expo intercept” method.

I have to say: this was a bit painful. I felt like I was back in front of a grocery store with a clipboard in hand, trying to get people to make eye contact so I could ask them for 5 minutes of their time. Instead of having a clipboard or any kind of indication I was about to go into a set of market research-esque questions, though, I was simply catching people by surprise as I walked up and asked if I could ask them a few questions.

That said, had I done this every single day of the conference in the expo hall, I probably would have had a fairly robust dataset comprising both my sub-audience and the larger audience. In large crowds, though, my introverted nature comes out, meaning I’m more likely to want to sit back and observe than I am to strike up conversations with strangers. (As an aside: I’ve generally been known to be in the periphery of a conversation for awhile and then enter the conversation, as opposed to always starting the conversation.) At any rate, this was both fruitful and painful, and ended when one individual seemed to think I was going to use their answers to represent the entire audience of interest, and said individual ran off and suggested I do a survey.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary of findings

This entire experience was insightful from a few perspectives. First, I learned a lot more about myself. I’m far more comfortable with an online anonymous survey being written and fielded than I am needing to go find people to talk to about my research topic. Second, I learned that once I got past the initial “could I ask you a few questions” and allaying fears that I was doing competitive intelligence gathering, I had some really fun conversations. Psychologically speaking, I found I had a perception of myself as someone who would be annoying people that was fairly unfounded and gave me quite the psychological and mental block to just striking up various conversations with conference attendees.

From a research perspective, I found there really are many different ways to go about trying to do audience research while at a conference. Just like any market research methodology, each has a time and place where it’s appropriate and, depending on the desired results, some are more effective than others. It was a lot of fun to push my boundaries and do something different than I’m used to. I’m actually really looking forward to doing this again with these lessons learned!

I’d love to hear from you about things you may have tried when doing this kind of research with an in-person audience. Even if you’ve never had to do this type of research before, I’d really like to hear what you think I should have tried, or what I should try the next time I’m needing to learn about an audience while attending a conference. Leave me a comment, or share your thoughts on tw

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