NHLBI Audience Profile Case Study: Defining Your Audience When Your Audience is Everyone

Sidebar for article published in February 2016 issue of UXPA Magazine

Many organizations serve broad audiences that are challenging to segment using traditional demographics and personas. For example, The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), addresses topics of interest to everyone from health consumers to health professionals to scientists.

NHLBI’s original approach to defining their audience involved cross-tabbing demographic details with their four focus areas––heart, lung, blood, and sleep science––to create fictitious typical users, or personas, which is not an uncommon approach. The result, though, was 20 personas.

George A. Miller’s 1956 paper about memory capacity theorized that short-term memory had a capacity of about “seven plus-or-minus two” chunks of information. Research along these lines has come a long way since Miller’s day, but it’s generally accepted that fewer variables are easier to track. Seven may or may not be a “magical” number, but it’s easier to consider than 20 when developing effective, organization-wide content and digital strategies. As part of the overhaul of NHLBI’s digital strategy, the Institute reexamined its audience to find a more effective way of defining and segmenting it using information consumption behaviors as the primary filter.

To start, NHLBI categorized its audience into six groups based on the Institute’s mission and work. Then, using primary and secondary research, NHLBI outlined attributes to define these broader audience segments according to their information consumption behaviors. NHLBI looked at general psychological attitudes people have toward health and health information, as well as technology. Examining common behaviors, the Institute established a more actionable and manageable data set.

NHLBI’s audience profiles are based on the intersection of the audience’s comfort with and access to health information (“health savvy”), as well as their comfort with and access to technology (“tech savvy”).

The personalities underlying the NHLBI’s audience profiles are an amalgamation of fact and reasonable conclusions based on research. There will always be outliers, but the point is to look at the overall typical behaviors and needs of different audiences. The seven profiles guide NHLBI’s strategic digital communications plans.

Unlike personas, an audience profile defines key motivational drivers, critical information needs, and the desired action for each, providing an actionable audience matrix to guide decision making. NHLBI looked at drivers that influence the critical information needs of its different audiences and considered the motivating factors to search for information and how and why audiences seek to interact with this information. NHLBI also evaluated audiences’ relationships with different information sources, including NHLBI, to understand where they are most likely to turn for information.

Looking across these different drivers, NHLBI traced trends and commonalities between audiences. These trends helped form a framework on which to build the audience profiles. Behaviors and attitudes helped form segments to break down and examine for each audience.

NHLBI’s approach provides a mechanism to clearly map the how, when, and why of health information consumption for each of its audiences to anticipate their needs. Ongoing feedback allows for validation and optimization of the profiles.

NHLBI Audience Profiles (PDF)

In some cases, it’s clear that those in most need of the information NHLBI provides won’t be reached directly through digital channels. These secondary audiences must be reached via a third party. For instance, someone who doesn’t or can’t use the internet won’t see the NHLBI website, but that person’s doctor or a community health worker can use tools on the NHLBI website to benefit them, or can deliver the information on behalf of NHLBI.

Moving away from demographics and focusing on behavioral indicators provides deeper insights into audiences and allows for more strategic communication across digital channels. NHLBI now has a better understanding of the audiences they currently serve, those they hope to serve, and those who have not yet connected with NHLBI. NHLBI also has a better understanding of how their audience naturally interacts with health information and technology. They can better harness those natural inclinations to impact and influence their audiences’ actions.

In short, these new audience profiles inform strategic decisions about communicating new initiatives and driving engagement. They also highlight where digital efforts can fall short in reaching certain audiences, exposing communication gaps and new opportunities.

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