How to Engage “Hard-to-Reach” Audiences

On a recent Twitter chat hosted by Sci Comm Club, I asked the question:

Thoughts and Feelings

It’s a concept that I came across while studying science communication and is often highlighted in health campaigns that fail to reach specific groups of people. Unfortunately, the label of “hard to reach” is frequently applied to minority ethnic groups, people with low economic status and low levels of literacy (Freimuth and Mettger, 1990). In this context this label could be interpreted as a lazy, frustration-driven way to explain why an engagement failed to reach these groups of people. My views are that labelling audiences as “hard to read” is just an excuse and that in the past, communicators have fallen at the first hurdle, failed to evaluate a project in depth and moved on to something “easier”.

The views among modern science communicators in the Twitter chat was clear and summarised perfectly in a reply to my original tweet:

I don’t think any audience is hard to reach just engagement levels differ. And if an audience is “hard to reach” for one person it may unfortunately just be the form of messaging doesn’t suit the audience. I see sci comm using a lot of copy paste methods for audiences.

Find the Original tweet here.

There’s plenty of evidence support that who we are used to engaging with on a daily basis leads to assuming that the best way to communicate with an audience is how we would want to be communicated to. If like me, you are a straight white woman, you may be biased in your communication styles because that’s what you’re used to!

There is a tendency to feign interest in the needs of an audience; assuming we know what they need from passive research and our own experiences.

What are the solutions?

To counteract these biases that we all have, there are a lots of options available, but below I focus on one that I’ve used in my professional role to make sure that projects are relevant to audiences I want to communicate with.

One of the most impactful ways to engage any audience in a project, is getting them involved in development. The strategy that I’ve come across and use, known as OF/BY/FOR ALL, was pioneered by museum director Nina Simon, who saw significant problems in the way her museum connected with their community. The problem was that they didn’t connect and had a detrimental “they’ll come to us” attitude. Nina turned this around and got to work actively approaching audiences that had been excluded before; involving groups of people in the full process from conception to delivery.

I recommend watching her Tedx talk on “The Art of Relevance” for some great inspiration and tips on how to engage in meaningful ways with audiences. Her methods can be implemented in any or all stages of project development, but the principal is that the audience should be involved somewhere! Making sure that the audience gets something out of the collaboration is essential and makes sure they have a personal connection or sense of ownership with the end result. This will help dissemination and encourage positive engagement with people similar to those involved in the development.

Obviously, a key way to increase the ability to reach any type of audience is to employ more diverse science communicators! This is in addition to actively understanding our biases and challenging them every time we connect with communities that we aren’t part of.

Although incredibly important, this approach isn’t just limited to race and ethnicity; one of the first projects I worked on professionally was installing an exhibition and running a launch event for video gamers. I do not belong to the video gaming community and I had to challenge my assumptions about what would engage them by collaborating and physically meeting with people who identified as gamers. This included everyone from 16 year olds to working adults and it was a brilliant experience to immerse myself in their culture for the duration of the project.

What are some great experiences that you’ve had engaging with audiences? What other audience engagement/ relevance strategies have you used in your science communication?

Comment below, join the original Twitter thread or tweet me to continue the conversation!

More information about the steps to creating successful science communication projects can be found in a recent article or as an infographic.

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