Our approach to researching a target audience has evolved over the years.
It now works like this:
Step 1: The Interviews
We will interview 10 to 20 prospective members of the target audience. This number changes if we have more time, but it's roughly accurate.
Our goal is three-fold.
First, we want to develop useful categories for a bigger survey.
Second, we want to build relationships with individuals who might become the founding members.
Third, we want to identify specific words and phrases they use to incorporate them within the community. This makes the community feel authentic.
We want to know the following:
1) How long they have been involved in that topic. This influences how advanced we target the material and type of discussions that appear in the community.
2) What do they spend most of their time doing (within the topic). This influences what type of content and discussions appear. We can also use these aspects as potential triggers to visit that community.
3) How they became interested/involved in the topic. This usually reveals common symbol systems and wording we can use to get people initially involved in the community.
4) What they hate most about the topic. This influences the initial motivation/call to action for people to join the community. It can also be a pain point we can use in the community concept.
5) What are they most afraid about in the topic. This influences the same things as above.
6) What do they like most about the topic. Again, this is the same as above. We can align the messaging within this.
7) What do they hope to achieve either within the topic (or where do they hope to be within the future). We can incorporate
8) Who do they consider their peers. This influences who we target the community for. We can often highlight specific segments here. We also know if we can get 20% of their peers in one community, the rest will follow.
9) What existing communities they participate in. This highlights potential competitors and ensures we can develop a unique community concept.
10) Who do you most admire within the topic.
Based upon this, we can develop create specific answer categories for each survey question. You saw a version of this in our event survey here.
Step 2: The Survey
Answers from 20 people aren't very useful unless they're validated by the broader group.
Now we develop a survey using almost identical questions above but with answers that came up both in the interviews and our own research.
We use SurveyMonkey to randomize how the answers appear. We also force people to rank by priority. This forces people to genuinely think about which issues are most important.
After each question, we add a question box to ask if there is anything else not considered above. This highlights anything glaring we might have missed in the interviews.
In the survey we also ask for demographic information (age/location/profession). This helps us identify potential clusters we can target the community towards to get started.
We've broadly found it better not to incentivize completing the survey and instead simply ask if they would like to help us by taking a survey.
Finally, we would also like their e-mail address to contact them in the future. We usually offer a benefit for providing this (discount, become a first member, free products/services/ebooks etc…).
If they provide their e-mail address, we can contact them in the future about becoming one of the first members (and know specifically what to say to persuade them to join the community).
Step 3: Split Testing Motivational Appeals
If we use BJ Fogg's motivational appeals (pleasure/pain, hope/fear, social inclusion/rejection), we can test which identified by community members is most effective.
Split your mailing list into three (or create 3 versions of your landing page using optimizely), and use the top answers in your motivational appeals.
You should be able to track which attracts members to both join and participate. Our experience is social inclusion based appeals (using exclusivity) is most effective to get a community started, but this might vary by the topic.
This research process takes time but gives you the best results.