Audience research with Els Aerts: Pro tips to get started

Proper audience research is key in maintaining and growing your customer base. So, how do you go about doing this research and how do you make sure you ask the right questions? We asked expert Els Aerts, partner at AGConsult, to walk us through the process and give us a few tips on how to get started with audience research and surveying. Els, the floor is yours!

Why research your audience?

Els: “Let’s be honest, you probably assume you know your audience quite well. There’s no shame in admitting it, a lot of companies do. That’s because you might know socio-demographic information such as their age, gender, and location. But, does this actually tell us who these people are?”

Get to know your customer like never before

Els stresses that socio-demographics are valuable, but the age of your customers does not tell you why they’re interested in your service. Or what problem your product solves for them. It also doesn’t give you insight into their objections or concerns. Or what might be holding them back from buying (more) from you. She states: “If you want to connect with your audience, you need to know a whole lot more about them. And proper audience research can help you with that.”

Where to start with your audience research?

Before you start your research, Els advises to ask yourself this question: What problem do I want to solve? The answer will help you determine what type of research to conduct. And, who among your audience is able to give you relevant insights into this issue. Often enough, this will help you shape your questions and what part of your audience to reach out to. For example, don’t send a survey about your onboarding process to people that have been your customer for over three years. These people don’t remember what your onboarding was like and can’t help you optimize this specific process.

Choose your method wisely

Els: “When you’ve determined what part of your audience to research, it’s time to choose a method. Of course, this is dependent on a few factors, such as the problem you want to solve, your product or service, and the size of your audience. But for most businesses, a cheap and easy way to get started is an online survey. There are loads of tools that can help you set up an online survey at a very low price (or for free, yay!). You can post a survey on your website or in your app, by using a tool such as Hotjar or Zoho Page Sense. Or you can send it to people via email or social channels with a tool such as SurveyMonkey or SurveyGizmo.”

When you need to dig deeper, she suggests conducting personal interviews and user testing: “These one-on-one interactions provide you with context and a more profound understanding of your customers. Interviews are also the way to go if you haven’t got that many customers yet. Mainly because an online survey might not provide you with enough input when the number of participants is limited. In that case, you can collect valuable information about your audience through personal interviews.”

Let’s formulate some questions

The next step is formulating the right questions to ask your audience. And you probably have tons of questions you would love to ask them. How to select which ones to ask? Els advises taking a moment to think back to the question you asked yourself before starting your research: What problem do you want to solve? 

“If there are any problem areas you want to address, focus on those first. For example, if you have a problem with churn rate, research your existing customers. If the acquisition is the issue, reach out to potential customers in your audience. Your problem area will guide you in who you should approach and what questions you should ask.”

There’s no such thing as a stupid question, right?

Unfortunately, although always aiming to help, Els can’t provide you with a ready-made list of questions to ask your audience. She can, however, tell you what questions will not get you the results you’re looking for:

  • Leave out any questions in which you ask people to predict the future. An example: “would you use our app more regularly if we introduced feature x, y or z?” Asking your audience to predict their future behavior is asking to be lied to. 
  • Don’t ask questions about a too distant past. Human memory can be unreliable at times. And, even if people can’t really remember something correctly, they want to be helpful. So they might make stuff up, which in fact, doesn’t help you at all. 
  • Get rid of all questions in which you’re asking someone’s opinion. An example: “How attractive do you think our design is, on a scale from 1 to 10?”. What will you do if your design scores a 7? And how is that different from an 8 or 6? Ask yourself how this information will help your business. 
  • Try to avoid framing or phrasing your questions in a way that leads to biased answers. An example: “How fast would you say our customer service response time is on a scale from 1 to 10?” It might seem a perfectly neutral question, but by using the word fast you’re pretty much suggesting it as an answer. Either use both the positive and negative versions of an adjective in your question or leave it out altogether. 

Summary: how to set up your audience research

Proper audience research is essential in growing and maintaining your customer base. So, how do you make sure the research you conduct gets you the answers you need? Always start by asking yourself the question: what problem do I want to solve? This will help you choose the right audience and research method. An online survey is a cheap and easy way to get started, but if you want to dive deeper Els recommends doing personal interviews or user testing. To formulate your questions, keep the problem you want to solve in mind. And, try not to include any questions in which you ask people to predict their future behavior, questions about a distant past, questions in which you ask their opinion or questions that can lead to biased answers. 

You’re all caught up now, and ready to start your audience research. We wish you lots of luck and plenty of valuable input on all your future surveys and interviews. Thank you, Els, for sharing your knowledge and experience in this interview!

About Els Aerts: Els has been creating better online experiences based on user research since 2001. She’s the co-founder of AGConsult, a Belgium-based usability, and conversion optimization company. She loves helping companies understand their customers better. Because knowing what makes your customers tick, drives growth. 

Read more: An introduction to user research »

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