How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

Which Size Matters?

The audience that matters for your research thought leadership might be 5,000 people, or 500, or 5.

It’s not about the size of the number. It’s about the size of their potential impact — when they act on your insights. When they become ambassadors for your solutions.

To reach those 5,000 or 500 or 5, you’ll no doubt construct a campaign that includes communicating in vehicles with much larger audience numbers than those target groups.

The big numbers, however, are not your audience. The big numbers aren’t the point.

A client recently asked if they should engage with an online big mouth who’d written a column attacking an issue the client supported. “Engage” meant write an answer piece, refuting the big mouth point by point. The strategy: the big mouth would of course respond, probably at length and across multiple channels, and the client’s ideas could thus theoretically “gain access” to the big mouth’s hundreds of thousands of followers.

I said no. Bad idea.

Bad idea because the big mouth is relentless and would chew up tons of my client’s time crafting responses, which would just beget more attacks. (I’ve seen this movie. The crew always dies in the end — or wishes they had.)

And bad idea because the big mouth’s audience isn’t the client’s key audience. It’s a one-issue audience of zealots who spend lots of time on social and little time making things happen. It’s also the big mouth’s audience because he put a ton of work into cultivating it. The idea that you can “gain access” to that kind of audience and suddenly flip them to a new position — on any topic — is a kind of magical thinking Ricky Jay would blush at.

I don’t know why researchers get so excited about “reach” and big audience numbers. It feels atavistic — certainly not scientific. But the first job of a research communicator is to educate them — and the executive team, and board — about what strategic communications growth is and isn’t, and who the organization’s audiences are.

And if the size of those audiences add up to a number more like the GDP of a small country than a list you could name, start over.