Published on July 2, 2021

Tracy Playle, CEO and Chief Content Strategist

Pickle Jar Communications Ltd

If it meant that you got to create even better content, would you be willing to get uncomfortably curious about your audience?

No? Darn. Maybe? Great, we can work with that. Hell yes? Well, let’s begin… 

Here’s the thing: when it comes to gathering the kind of audience insights that actually make a difference to our content strategy and planning, you have to be nosey!

In this post, we’re going to look at a layered approach to scratching the itch of curiosity about your audience:

  • Curiosity through analytics
  • Curiosity through social listening
  • Curiosity through surveys and testing
  • Curiosity through conversation 

Getting curious through your analytics

Reliance on web and social media analytics is a narcissistic version of doing audience research. We convince ourselves that we’re curious about them, but really we’re just curious about ourselves and how our content performed. So much so that I truly believe that your analytics are not audience research at all

There are two things that will keep us stuck in fooling ourselves that analytics are audience research:

  1. The belief that we don’t have time for anything else, so analytics will have to suffice
  2. The fear of actually speaking to our audiences and really getting nosey with them

Consider also that 1 might be the excuse you make when 2 is the thing that’s really in the way. 

Getting curious through social listening

Social listening is definitely a form of getting more curious and nosey about our audience. In fact, in the early days of using social listening as a research tool some folks even considered it a little intrusive. Gasp, we might be “too nosey” or “too curious” (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing as being too curious when it comes to having true compassion for serving your audiences).

But social listening is still done at a safe distance. So, if you’re afraid of actually talking to another person, this approach will appeal to you as it’ll give the illusion that you’re being truly curious about them. But does it really scratch that itch?

Social listening will certainly give you some insights into what (some of) your audiences talk about and the opinions that they have on things. But it only presents a slice of their humanity: the slice that they want the online world to see, controlled by how they want to be seen. And what about those who aren’t talking at all?

What’s missing in just relying on social listening is the true understanding of the motivation behind what they post, and – the thing that is perhaps even juicier to know – what are they not talking about? Or what are they hiding behind that snarky Reddit comment or that stunning Instagram post?

Social listening might give us the hypotheses to test, but it won’t really – or reliably – provide the answers. So it’s just a part of the process. It might tickle the curiosity itch, not scratch it. 

Curiosity through surveys and testing

Surveys and testing is the first mode of curiosity in our list that really sees you asking questions. But often in such surveys and tests we’re still hiding behind technology and we get to avoid the awkwardness of, y’know – *whispers* – speaking to someone. 

The other place where surveys get in the way of true curiosity is through the lack of ability to interrogate, to explore, to go off-script. In fact, one of the reasons that we love surveys is that they stay precisely on-script and therefore give us neat little parcels of data. But humans aren’t neat. We’re messy. Seeing and being with the mess is an essential part of truly understanding your audience. 

So surveys might go some way to uncovering the “what” within our audiences, but they’re unlikely to really uncover the “why,” the “what for,” the “what if,” and the “so what.” The tidiness of a survey helps us to make decisions but stunts true creativity and exploration. 

Curiosity through conversation: going off-script

Everything that we’ve spoken about before is scripted and neatly controlled by someone (you or them):

  • Your scripted monologue (analytics)
  • Their scripted monologue (social listening)
  • Your scripted exchange (surveys). 

And while focus groups, telephone interviews and in-person user testing put us in a form of conversation, there’s still a tendency for us to stick to a script. 

Getting really curious about, and with, our audiences is gonna require us to go off-script. 

Brace yourself. You’re gonna have to talk to someone. And it might be messy. 

But I promise, there’s no mess that you can’t clear up. 

In my talk at PSEWeb this year – What would Scooby do? Getting curious about the mysteries our audiences hold – I’ll be encouraging you to be brave and be nosey. 

And the place that I invite you to look, to uncover the really useful insights that will drive your content, is less about what they’re saying, and more about how they’re being about it. 

This is a bold step. It requires you to:

  1. Observe their being, and not just listen to what they’re saying
  2. Reflect their being back to them (you don’t have to be “right”, it just opens up a new kind of discussion)
  3. Interrogate it with them. Heck, they might even love it as it gives them a chance to get curious about themselves. 

Example 1:

“Hey, I notice that all of the answers that you’re giving me in this conversation are just – well – really nice. What’s that about?”

“Well, I guess I just don’t want my answers to screw up my application to study at this school.”

“Huh. What’s that about for you? Tell me more about the things you’re afraid of?”

Example 2:

“What made you decide to attend this focus group today?”

“Well, you were giving free pizza!”

Polite laughter, “okay then…” [chooses to actually get curious about that motivation]

“What is it about free pizza that persuaded you to be here?”

“I’m hungry. Money is tight and I can’t afford to eat right now. So I’ll take free food if I can get it.”

“I’m glad that we can help today. But how else can we help? Are there other things like this that are really in your way right now of having a great experience of being at college?”

When we’re willing to get curious, and willing to ask the difficult questions, we create a space for a whole new level of compassion for our audiences. And it’s only through true compassion that we can truly create content that stands out and make a difference. 

But it takes courage to bring that level of compassion. So, in service of really serving your audiences, are you ready to be more brave in how you seek to understand them?


Tracy Playle is a content strategist, public speaker and author serving the education sector. She has worked with almost 250 schools, colleges and universities in over 30 countries. She is also the founder of ContentEd and the author of The Connected Campus (2020). She is also a highly trained ontological coach and she brings the power of ontological coaching to help people become better – and more playful and curious – content strategists and communicators.