We are 16 years into the new millennium and well past the first flush of the internet. In the early 2000s organisations asked whether they should have a website and what they should be putting on it. By the end of the decade we’d moved to asking questions about social media, Twitter and whether we needed a Facebook group or page.

Now the questions are more nuanced and although the increased sophistication of those questions demonstrates how far we’ve come, they also frequently illustrate how far we have to go.

This is for a variety of reasons, but often it’s because we aren’t taking the time to really understand our online audiences, to build websites that are useful, to write email newsletters people really want to read or to share content on social media that is interesting and entertaining.

Too many organisations are still applying a campaign-centred approach to the digital world rather an audience-centred one. The big problem with this approach, particularly online, is that the competition for attention is now so huge that if you are not putting the audience at the heart of your planning, they will simply go elsewhere.

Knowing your online audience

The first step to serving online audiences effectively is to learn more about them and insights will likely come from several different sources. Social media analytics tools will give you some detail about what kinds of people follow your accounts, such as their age, gender, geographical location and general interests, and it is a good idea to do an audit periodically of what kind of people they are.

Twitter in particular appears to have changed over the last 18 to 24 months. Anecdotally, many arts organisations have said that their Twitter audience consists more of peers, industry professionals and other interested parties rather than customers themselves.

There will be a number of reasons why your online audience is what it is. You can’t influence some of those factors, such as the success and growth of the platform itself, but some you can, such as your deliberate strategy for the channel and what you use it for.

Social media analytics tools can also help you understand what kind of content engages your online audiences. Performing regular audits of your social content provides a check to ensure you’ve not inadvertently fallen into ‘broadcast mode’.

There are many ways to do this but a simple idea is to take three months’ worth of Facebook posts or Tweets and analyse the reach and engagement. You can do this either by downloading the data directly from each platform and doing a simple manual analysis or by using a paid-for tool that will automate some or all of the process.

An arsenal of tools

Google Analytics must be in your arsenal of tools when it comes to understanding how people are interacting with your website. The questions you can answer with Google Analytics are varied, but if they are the right ones, the answers to those questions can help you refine and improve your online activity.

Do more people that come from Facebook convert than those that come from Twitter? This is where ‘conversion’ relates to your website goals such as buying a ticket, signing up to a newsletter or interacting with certain types of content. Which pages are the most popular? How successful was a recent online marketing campaign in getting people to sign up to membership through the website?

While Google Analytics is vital to help you better understand your online audiences, it is limited in terms of what it can tell you about the types of people that visit your site. It is more focused on how they interact with your site rather than who they are.

If you want to understand more about the type of audiences visiting your website, one option is a tool which The Audience Agency uses called Hitwise: AudienceView. Its features include the ability to profile the characteristics of your website visitors in a similar way to how you segment your physical attenders.

You can understand your digital and ‘real-life’ audiences on the same terms. This allows you to bring together your research on audiences to get the full picture of who you are reaching – and who you are not. It also means you can tie together on- and offline campaigns for the first time.

No more guesswork

Whatever combination of tools you use to understand your online audiences, there is one thing for certain that you shouldn’t do – and that’s leave it to guesswork or ‘gut instinct’. Making assumptions about your audiences is a risk, and one that is unlikely to pay off.

We have come a long way from the days of asking if we should have a website or not, but now more than ever it’s vital to ask the right questions to get the right answers, using the right tools.

First published by Arts Professional, 15 September 2016, artsprofessional.co.uk