Importance of Knowing Your Audience (Users)

Let ‘s begin with a story…

A salesman of a soft drink company was disappointed with a major failure of an assignment in the Middle East. A friend asked, “You are such a good salesman. Why weren’t you successful?”

The salesman explained, “When I got posted in the Middle East, I was very confident that I will make a good sales pitch. Since I did not know Arabic, I planned to convey the message using three posters in the order 1-2-3 and pasted them all over the place.

  • The first poster had a man crawling through the hot desert sand, totally exhausted and panting.
  • The second had the man drinking our soft drink.
  • The third poster showed him totally refreshed.

That should have worked,” said the friend. The salesman replied, “Not only did I not speak Arabic, I also did not realize that Arabs read from right to left. So my posters (which were from left to right) gave a different meaning altogether to the Arabs who were referring the posters in the order 3-2-1.”

So you see, it is very important to know your audience and their requirements! Else, inspite of having all the required information, your efforts in trying to get their attention or helping them will be futile.

The audience are the users who will be using the product and reading your writing. How you write and what you write basically depends on your audience. You have to analyze them to know about their requirements and how you can give it to them. Knowing your audience will help you understand them better and will help you determine the following:

  • The knowledge they have about the subject discussed in the document.
  • The terminology you should use.
  • How simple or complex your writing needs to be.
  • The tone you will have to use when you write. Tone, in writing, refers to how something is explained.

Example: Some marketing errors caused due to lack of audience analysis are listed here:

  • Coors used its slogan, “Turn it loose” in Spanish where it was read as Suffer from diarrhea.
  •  Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following slogan in an American campaign: Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.
  • When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, with the beautiful Caucasian baby on the label. But, it did not sell. Later they learned that in Africa, companies routinely put pictures on the label of what’s inside the package, since most people could not read.
  • Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France called Cue. Unfortunately, cue happened to be the name of a notorious porn magazine in France.
  • An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope’s visit. Instead of “I saw the Pope” (el papa), the shirts read “I saw the potato” (la papa).
  • The Pepsi ad “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated into “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave“, in Chinese.
  • The Coca-Cola name in China was first read as Ke-kou-ke-la, meaning Bite the wax tadpole or female horse stuffed with wax, depending on the dialect. Coke then researched 40,000 characters to find a phonetic equivalent ko-kouko-le, translating into happiness in the mouth.
  • When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its advertisements were supposed to have read, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you“. The translated advertisement read: “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant“. The company used the word embarazar which meant to impregnate.

Many years ago, I read somewhere that the academic subject most closely related to technical writing is acting. Then, I did not understand the significance of this statement. Now, I understand it very well. As you are aware, actors must be able to live the character they portray. They must be able to look as the character would, dress as the character would, feel as the character would, and react as the character would.

As a technical writer, you must have the same level of understanding of the person who uses the documentation you write for. You must know what your users know, what they don’t know, and what they expect from the product you are documenting.


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