by John Goslino, Principal Consultant, Audience Dialogue, Australia
Communication is most effective when it is interactive: when it works in both directions, and it is immediate. It takes two to communicate.
So one way to improve the effectiveness of research would be to enlarge the idea of consensus groups [could be link to article on this topic in MRWorld], and to combine research and planning.
You may appreciate the idea of a search conference (one of the strands from which consensus groups were derived) and thinking about this, we invented a new type of activity, a mixture of research and planning. We call this a co-discovery conference - to show that it's related to a search conference, but has a different emphasis.
Co-discovery conferences work like this: broadcasters (or staff of any organization which has an audience) and audience members meet for a day, find out more about one another, and together map out a future direction for the organization.
The ideal number of participants is about 30, with more audience members than broadcasters: about 18 audience members and 12 staff members. The difference partly reflects the fact that there are many more audience members than staff members, and partly gives more confidence to the audience members, who can feel overwhelmed at the expertise of the staff. The maximum I'd recommend is about 40 people, in the same proportions: 60% audience and 40% staff.
A co-discovery conference lasts for about 8 hours: one working day. Ideally, it will begin in the early afternoon, break overnight, and finish the next morning. The advantage of the overnight break is that it gives participants time to review the first half of the proceedings, and come up with new ideas. People tend to be more creative in the mornings than the afternoons, but the co-discovery conference format needs to go through a fact-finding stage before it can move on to creativity.
When to hold a co-discovery conference
Co-discovery conferences are intensive exercises, which require more staff time than most other types of audience research. They are best done as part of an regular planning exercise. If your organization is a broadcaster or publisher, many of the ideas will be for new programs: something that a media organization needs a constant supply of, and an annual co-discovery conference would be appropriate. For other organizations, the most appropriate situation for a co-discovery conference is when major change is about to occur, and you realize you know very little about your current (or potential) audience.
Co-discovery conference procedures
The conference process falls into four main parts:
1. Introduction (about 1 hour)
2. Research (3 hours)
3. Planning (3 hours)
4. Closing, and looking ahead (1 hour).
Within each part, there's a mixture of individual work, small-group sessions, and plenary sessions.
Let's jump to part 2, the research component.
Now that the mental stereotypes have been swept away, the research part of the co-discovery conference can begin. The small groups are re-formed. From this point on, the audience and the staff are always mixed together, further emphasizing the unity of the conference.
The next step is to hold consensus groups: three at once. With a total of 30 participants, there will be 10 in each consensus group: about 4 staff members and 6 audience members. The focus now is on the audience experience, and staff members will respond not in their staff role but in their private audience role.
To run three consensus groups at once, you need three people who know how to moderate and three who can be secretaries. If you don't have people trained in these skills, you will need to organize consensus-group training sessions before the co-discovery conference.
2a. First set of consensus groups: audience point of view
Depending on the purpose of the co-discovery conference, the three consensus groups can either discuss the same topic (something to do with the organization as a whole), or three different topics, or three different approaches to an overall topic. We've found the latter to be best, bearing in mind that the main purpose of the research stage is to help staff and audience find out more about each others' interests and capabilities. For example, the three groups can be asked to discuss:
1. What are the best aspects of the organization?
2. What are the worst aspects of the organization?
3. What aspects of the organization most need improving?
As usual with a consensus group, these groups begin with a self-introduction by each participant.
After about an hour and a half, the consensus groups are asked to compile their findings. From each group, a presenter (who is a member of the group, not necessarily a moderator) presents the findings, which will be displayed on large sheets of paper, and sticks these on the wall. As the staff and audience have been about equally mixed in the three groups, the three sets of findings should be fairly consistent.
For each group, any findings on which there was a clear disagreement between staff and audience should be noted, and discussed, to make sure that the disagreement is real, and not just a matter of the vocabulary used.
2b. Second set of consensus groups: producers' point of view
The three groups are now re-formed, with different people in each, but still about 40% staff and 60% audience in each group. As the previous research exercise saw the organization's output from the audience's point of view, this session will review the output from a producer's point of view. Just as, last time, the staff were asked to take on a role as audience members, this time the audience are asked to put themselves in the position of staff members, choosing and evaluating programs. Don't worry: they can do it! No technical knowledge is needed here - and for many organizations, the audience have longer experience than the staff.
Again, three consensus groups are done. They will be faster this time, because everybody now knows what is expected. Introductions are repeated (because the mix of people is different this time). The broad questions to be considered by the consensus groups are similar to those considered in the previous session, e.g.
1. Which of the existing programs should be kept?
2. Which of the existing programs should be dropped?
3. What new programs should be created?
As before, the agreed findings are written on large sheets of paper, and an elected presenter describes these findings to all participants after the consensus groups have finished
Usually there will be a lot of similarity between the audience-oriented and the staff-oriented findings. Any differences between the two can now be discussed in the full groups, with the moderator seeking reasons for the differences. These reasons are also written on large sheets of paper, and put on the wall. As before, clear disagreements between staff and audience should be discussed further, to clarify the exact area of disagreement.
By the end of this second stage, when staff members have thought in an audience role (and vice versa) both sets of participants should have a much clearer understanding of each other. It's time to move on to the second half of the co-discovery conference, which is the planning stage. If feasible, there should be a gap here, to give everybody time to reflect on the findings. The ideal is to leave it overnight, if this was an afternoon session. Next best is to continue the next day, after a morning session. Third best is to break for lunch, and continue soon afterwards.
Please refer to more details on running co-discovery conferences on our website.
The big danger with a co-discovery conference is that, at the end of the day, everybody is clear about what should happen, but nobody ever gets around to doing it. All that effort is wasted. That's why it's important to assign an effective team to follow up the conference: staff who are important enough that everybody respects them, but not so busy that they have no time to make sure that the conference plans are carried out.
In a single day's work, the staff involved will have gained both a good understanding of their audience, and a clear set of prioritized plans to work on. I know of no other way of achieving all this, in so short a time.
For more information please visit our website, www.audiencedialogue.net