By Larry Cohen
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
When Steve Lopez, the great L.A. Times columnist, spoke at an NSNC convention a number of years ago, he joked about being labeled a “local” columnist. What exactly did “local” mean in a Los Angeles metro area that sprawled for hundreds of miles, with a diverse subscription base that was difficult to even describe?
Audience analysis is a challenge for most communicators, be they newspaper columnists, bloggers or public speakers. In theory, your message is most effective when it is targeted at the right audience – if, in fact, you know with some precision who that audience might be.
In addition, of course, there is an avalanche of academic research on “persuasion theory” that suggests the value of knowing what your audience thinks, how strongly they believe it — and what they think of the person delivering the message.
It’s not always about “persuasion,” of course. If you write for trade publications, for instance, the audience analysis involves writing on topics that the niche audience will be interested in — whether or not they agree with you. For the traditional daily papers, the challenge is, oddly enough, determining who in the world is reading the thing — and whether the hodgepodge of urban and suburban and professional and blue-collar folks will find satisfaction in the same columnist material.
The challenge is not limited to journalism, of course. The marketing and public relations and advertising folks spend endless days on the audience analysis challenge, both in terms of content and appropriate delivery medium.
As a professional organization with a diverse, murky, messy, membership base, NSNC faces the challenge of audience analysis as well. Who are you? In its early days, NSNC could take comfort in the image of our members as grizzled veterans in trench coats and fedoras (even the women), prowling the mean streets of wherever, looking for columnist fodder.
Today, as your President, equipped with a staff of thousands and endless resources tucked away in Cayman Island bank accounts, I still would be hard-pressed to offer up a cogent analysis of exactly who our members are, in terms of what they do professionally – and why they joined the organization (beyond the appeal of an extraordinary President).
Based on our own sense of quality control, and feedback from you, this newsletter and our annual meetings seem to be on-target to be worthwhile resources for our members – whoever the heck they are. But, if we are to continue growing, especially in the face of difficult economic times for the news business, we need to sharpen up our market intelligence, our audience analysis, to deliver the kind of intellectual goods that you all want and need.
At some point, we may well inflict a marketing research survey on all of you, as part of the process. We’re not trying to sell you autographed pictures of President Cohen (although that would be nice); data would be ruthlessly manipulated to generate wisdom about who you are – and, of course, who we should be as an organization.
There is no crisis here; we remain a sophisticated, successful, professional organization – especially given the turmoil of the industry right now. At the margin, in an incremental fashion, we want to always be open to a bit of tinkering, based on who our members are and what they want.