A deeper understanding

Simply understanding the societal issue you are seeking to address is not enough. You need deep understanding of your audience’s lives and what motivates them. This will likely involve answering some or all of the following questions:


What does your audience’s everyday routine look like?


What are they passionate about? What do they hope for in their lives?


What worries them? What do they find difficult and what holds them back?


Who influences them – both in their personal lives and in the media? Why?


What media channels do they engage with, and how?

We believe in starting with the person, not the issue. Knowing what they care about and what they need is essential to the success of social marketing.
Larissa Persons, Director of Strategy, SKY Girls

Once you have a clear sense of your audience and what they care about, you can then dive deeper into your focus issue and how they interact with it:

How do they perceive the issue? What do they understand about it?

In what circumstances would this issue affect them? Where does it fit in their everyday lives?

What are their attitudes towards the issue? What are the costs and benefits of it for them?

Who/what are the key people and factors influencing their attitudes towards this issue?

What has been tried in the past to influence their behaviour around this issue? Has this been effective?

What levers could be pulled on to change their behaviour on this issue?

Conducting secondary research

To answer these questions, you will likely need to draw on a range of different sources.

The first port of call is likely to be detailed secondary research to discover what is already known about this issue as it affects your audience, and what has already been tried to address it. You should consider some or all of the following actions:

Review population-level data around your target issue and/or your audience (e.g.  For a smoking campaign, this could be the current Global Youth/Adult Tobacco Survey rates for that country; national rates of tobacco-related illness; uptake of tobacco-related health services; cigarette purchase figures etc).

Explore the academic research around your target issue as it affects this audience. Which sub-groups are most at risk?  What are the broader attitudes to this issue (e.g. stigma)? What specific behaviours should you be seeking to change (e.g. uptake of a specific preventative measure such as PrEP for HIV)?

Review the current activity around this issue in this market (e.g. government services, education, counter-marketing from e.g. industry bodies). What is already being done? Where can your intervention compliment/fill a gap?

Explore the academic research around your target audience in this market. What can you conclude about their everyday lives, the challenges they face and what motivates them?

Explore the academic research into effective social marketing campaigns in this market, with this audience and/or around this issue. What are the principles for an effective intervention in this area?

Review the existing and previous social marketing campaigns in this market, with this audience and/or around this issue. How have they been received? What worked, and what didn’t?

Conducting primary research

Once you’ve completed your secondary research, you can use detailed primary research with your target audience to plug gaps and dive deeper into the key questions for your intervention. Your primary research tools might include:

Focus Groups or workshops

One-on-one interviews by phone or in person

Ethnographies or home/community visits


Focus Group Sampling

Qualitative focus groups with our target audience were one of the most important research tools for developing the SKY Girls programme. To ensure these were as accurate and representative as possible, we made sure the following were adequately represented in our sample.

Participants who exhibited the desired behaviour (smoking non-triallists) and those who did not (smoking triallists).

Participants from a spread of demographic groups represented within our target audience – with a particular focus on demographic traits that are associated with the focus issue (including lower, middle and high-income groups; urban vs rural areas and a mix of family size and status).

Participants with a range of experiences of the focus issue (including those who had family members who smoked, and those who did not).

Getting the best out of focus groups

The best size for focus groups is likely to be between six and twelve people, depending on your audience, budget and the amount of time allocated for the groups. With more than twelve people, ensuring everyone’s voices are heard will be a challenge, and groups with fewer than six participants can quickly become time- and cost-intensive.

When planning your discussion guide, start with a broad understanding of the audience and their lives, and then narrow in on your specific focus issue once the audience has had a chance to get comfortable.


Sensitive issues, sensitive audiences

Certain behaviours (e.g. those that are illegal or stigmatised) and certain audiences (e.g. those who are uncomfortable or unconfident in a research setting) make running focus groups more challenging. SKY Girls researchers have faced both challenges: the stigma around smoking can lead to desirability bias, whereby participants give the answers they think researchers want to hear, and teenage girls are also unlikely to be confident in a research setting.

Over the years, we have developed a range of strategies to help girls be as honest and comfortable as possible:

Friendship groups

Speak with girls in friendship triads/pairs rather than alone.


Start with some icebreaker or warm-up exercises to make girls feel comfortable and relaxed with each other and the moderator.


Choose a natural, familiar context where participants will not be overheard by parents/teachers.


Run focus groups with as uniform a demographic as possible. Consider splitting your target audience into segments e.g. by age or gender.


Give participants the option to be anonymous or choose a nickname if they’d prefer not to be named.

Sharing experiences

Invite participants to share experiences about ‘a friend’ or to imagine how they would feel in a certain scenario to avoid them having to talk explicitly about their own experiences if they choose not to.

Long focus groups

Longer focus groups give participants time to relax. Save the most sensitive questions for later in the conversation (at SKY Girls, we often found girls becoming much more honest towards the end of the discussion). 

When running a focus group with girls, we start by allowing them all to choose a nickname - which can be as silly as they like. This creates a lot of laughter, preserves anonymity and helps to set a warm and open tone for discussions.
Yvonne Acheampong, Director of Strategy, SKY Girls Ghana

Influencer research

As well as speaking directly with your target audience, it may also be helpful to talk to other people or groups who have deep understanding of your audience and how to reach them, through individual or group discussions. These may include:

Family members parents, siblings

Teachers or guidance councellors

Local charities NGOs or service providers (e.g. social workers, doctors)

Central government or local government organisations

Marketing experts or influences

Additional Resources

Understanding our audience in Botswana

View resource