The Professional Writing 101 series aims to educate readers on the best practices applied to various industries that utilize professional writers. This series will dive into several aspects of writing such as professional writing pedagogies, defining and analyzing the audience, and document and readability design.
The Professional Writing 101 series will be divided into 6 main chapters:
Professional Writing 101: Collecting Data for Audience Personas
Professional Writing 101: Digital Tools for Better Writing
The previous article of the Professional Writing 101 series emphasized the importance of readability design and the theories behind what makes writing more digestible to a reader. This next part of the series will shift to how writers collect audience insights and apply that data in their written communication. In academia, writers consider their peers and superiors in their field of study as audience members of their work. In careers outside academia, writers must assess various other audiences and choose a niche, especially freelance writers who take on several different projects. Professional writers obtain audience awareness through research by collecting audience insights. The results following the research process then assist in developing an audience persona, which writers leverage as a guide. This article will touch on each of these points and discover the challenges and rationale behind this process of cumulating audience data for the writing process.
To begin, the idea of audience awareness impacts every part of the writing process, from the initial drafting stage to revision. However, a writer does not necessarily have to keep the audience in mind through every moment. Grant Wiggins (2009), a former educator and publisher from Harvard, had a pivotal role in influencing pedagogical instruction theories, and highlighted the necessity of audience-focus writing early on,
You write to subgroups and individuals ... there are many different 'audiences' in our audience, and we need to figure out what they think, feel, expect, and need if we hope to reach one or more of them (p. 33).
Audience consideration is a daunting task, so the main takeaway of this study reveals that writers should uphold a flexible approach in the drafting and revision process. To clarify, a flexible approach entails discerning when to consider what an audience expects while preserving a unique authorial voice and motivations behind a message. Roen and Willey quote Flower and Hayes (1980) on their cognitive models for composition,
One of the hallmarks of the good writers was the time they spent thinking about how they wanted to affect the reader (as cited in Roen & Willey, 1988, p. 77).
What constitutes good writing may be a nebulous, subjective task, but undeniably, successful writing achieves the intent behind a message and resonates with its target.
The next course of action that a writer approaches to familiarize themselves with an audience would be the creation of a persona for themselves and the audience. Merriam Webster (n.d.) defines a persona as “the personality that a person (such as an actor or politician) projects in public” (Definition of persona, definition 2). In the context of writing, a persona curated by the author does not have to be an authentic reflection of the author: that is voice. As aforementioned in the previous 101 Series article, “Writers as Vessels”, the voice relates to a unique, authorial tone articulated through their writing. A persona is a disguise that a writer uses when conveying messages, such as taking on the brand tone for a company or organization; and a perfect example of a persona is represented by the style a writer employs through magazines. Hugh Rank (1970), an associate professor at Sacred Heart University, suggests analyzing magazines as a strategy for teaching audience-directed writing,
As the student puts down Reader’s Digest and picks up Popular Mechanics, he is generally unaware that he is changing roles, and he is unaware of the subtle changes in the writing of these two magazines (p. 407).
The internet age changed the medium of magazines to blogs and digital newspapers, but the general theory proposed even in the 1970s maintains relevance. The persona the writer adopts should appeal to their target and remain consistent with the brand and who reads the material. The target of a music and culture magazine starkly diverges from a reader looking at the latest technology and science magazine. Analyzing the subtle differences in writing and understanding the audience member's role facilitates conscious better decision-making in the writing process.
One of the early methodologies of practicing audience analysis is a "tagmemic matrix", introduced by Lynnette R. Porter (1988). The professor in technical communication defined the exercise as “[A] heuristic device that prepares students to write about a subject they understand and want to explain to their readers” (p. 68). The device includes five main audiences (lay readers, technicians, operators, executives, and experts) and each audience type has three sets of questions to help writers narrow the subject, focus, and environment in which the document will be read. Professional writers as undergraduates use similar methods today, but technological advancement altered the process of audience analysis through more automated methods. These methods include collecting audience data through surveys, social media, website analytics, and user interviews to develop a cohesive end product: an audience persona.
Hence, the ease of distributing information online has made it more convenient to collect audience data in real-time. The process of collecting audience insights undertakes additional names depending on the discipline: a technical writer in User Experience (UX) Design would call it user research, and marketers say market research. Sales and business employ the terms buyer or consumer research and then develop a coordinating persona or ‘customer journey’ accordingly. The end model across all industries operates as a writer's guide for manuals, articles, ad copies, and other written communications.
Though these names change slightly, all of them are a "target audience". A target audience is any group that a piece of content or writing is aimed at and is essential for writers to know. Robert W. Bly (1998), a professional copywriter and consultant, states that one of the most common mistakes writers can make is "misreading the reader" and further articulates this point,
Written communications are most effective when they are targeted and personal. Your writing should be built around the needs, interests, and desires of the reader (Misreading the reader section, para. 2).
A novice public speaker may be given two pieces of advice. One is to look at one person in the crowd, and the other is to look past the audience at the wall. The same principle can be applied when writing to a target audience. It is much easier to envision one representative from that target audience during the writing process, and that is where writers focus on the audience persona.
However, this process must be an inclusive one and account for the inevitable variance of individuals amongst a group. Arlinda Rrustemi (2022), a Ph.D. in Political Science from Leiden University writes, “Selecting individuals from different countries, locations (rural-urban), socioeconomic classes, genders, ethnicities, and religions will allow for an effective life story narrative messaging-campaign”(p. 7). Likely, a writer whose target audience is mainly focused on a local community may not have to consider those from different countries, unless that local community is a highly diverse metropolis. Even still, maintaining an inclusive audience persona attracts new attention and reinforces the goals and values of an existing target audience.
Traditionally, the most direct way for writers to collect audience data are through surveys, focus groups, user-testing, and assessing online communities to see what terminology and knowledge are circulated. Surveys are still a great way to gather quantitative and qualitative information such as the age and population of a target area. Thus, developers create programs such as SurveyMonkey or Google Forms to facilitate direct feedback from consumers. Technology simply created more innovative ways to streamline the research process and business-to-consumer (B2C) communication. Social network research aids in extracting more individualized data from an online user. Despite its ingenuity, Annika Richterich’s (2018) book addresses the drawbacks of big data and draws attention to this digitalized form of research for scholars and professional online writers,
Such research does not only take place in university departments. Internet and tech corporations themselves also conduct research, circumventing forms of ethical oversight (p. 34).
Conducting research internally, independently, or through direct funding leads to biased results unscrutinized by a third-party reviewer. As a result, skewed results that are written by complicit writers produce gross misleads to manipulate the reader. In America alone, the Pew Research Center (2019), a nonpartisan organization conducting social trends and research reported, "63% of Americans say they understand very little or nothing at all about the laws and regulations that are currently in place to protect their data privacy" (p. 5). Lack of trust taints the validity of information and news circulated online, personal data can be vulnerable to hackers in a security breach.
Jessica Reyman (2013), a professor in Rhetoric and Professional Writing, exemplifies another way that companies such as Amazon track their audiences' buying habits, “Consider Amazon.com, which offers personalized recommendations for books, music, and many other products based on users’ browsing histories and purchasing habits” (p. 517). Websites track this via ‘cookies’ on websites and ‘terms of service’ on social media platforms. This data informs algorithms to promote certain items to a single person much more effectively, and marketers use trends for more appealing advertisements. In some ways, it creates a sense of empathy by considering audience needs, and empathy better equips writers with more far-reaching language. Soon-Gyo Jung, Joni Salminen, and Jisun An (2018), each involved in computing research and marketing, concluded that,
Personas remain a viable option even in the era of online analytics data. It is possible to combine automatic data collection and other computational techniques to create accurate persona profiles that can also be used for advanced purposes such as prediction (p. 60).
The persona has evolved to match the current technology available.
Nevertheless, advanced digitalized data collection can also cause violations of privacy rights and misuse of sensitive information. The topic of ethics requires much more in-depth investigation, but writers operating in the tech age should be aware of the ethical debate that pervades the industry. Reyman (2013) concludes,
If we understand user data as collaboratively authored texts, we can better recognize their worth to the social Web as valuable resources (p. 530).
By adhering to Reyman’s argument, this collaborative effort functions similarly to a survey or focus group because audience members gain preemptive awareness of how their information will be applied. Writers construct language as clearly as possible in their written documents, and for this reason, should inform the audience of research pertaining to them with equal transparency.
After completing audience research, a writer will organize all the representative data into a fictitious audience member and cross reference this framework. The audience persona looks quite similar to a user’s social media profile, though it represents a larger group. Aaron Humphrey (2017), a researcher in the discipline of media at the University of Adelaide, describes the process of designing the audience persona, “In practice personas are often based on readily available data, demographics or informal observations” (p. 14). The points assemble a short profile of their member’s qualitative data such as interests, dislikes, and occupations. For example, an audience consisting of Generation Z (those born in 1995-2012) will have different cultural outlooks compared to previous generations. Writers should not mistakingly stereotype a generational statistic. Instead, they should observe any general trends such as an increased concern for environmental sustainability, new perceptions of social issues, and higher tech-savviness to name a few. Humphrey (2017) stresses this empathic approach by writing,
Designers should think about audience personas as if they were real people, referring to their names, imagining conversations with them and advocating for their interests (p. 1).
In the end, communication of any form succeeds when one can recognize the existing context and respond appropriately.
To conclude, an audience persona is a tool that facilitates audience-centered writing. Audience profiles incorporate qualitative and quantitative details suitable to the written project. The articles in this 101 series continue to reiterate how professional writers acquire diligent researchers, creatives, and critical thinkers. They leverage psychological and sociological theories to design their written collateral, articles, social media captions, and website content. It is not sufficient to know a topic well. In fact, to communicate and design the information effectively to the reader’s needs and suit the medium is indeed an art and science. A thorough and organized audience persona provides a way for writers to envision a reader and orchestrate language which, in the end, will inform a reader with the knowledge they need.
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