Anticipate audience expectations

The idea that communicators need to anticipate and meet the expectations of their audiences isn’t new. Communication has conventional forms and, by following the conventions and meeting audience expectations, communicators can minimise errors and increase accuracy. Audiences learn the ‘communication script’ that is relevant for situations, and expect that script to be followed. 

This seems like a simple enough guideline, but it can be difficult to get it right. Sometimes communicators make incorrect assumptions about what their audiences expect. And sometimes communicators get caught up in the way that they plan to do something, and forget to think about whether their approach will be logical for their audience. When communication doesn’t happen the way that audiences expect, they may become frustrated or confused (or perhaps do business with your competitor).

I’ve had a ‘frustrated and confused audience member’ experience over the past few weeks. The organisation in question didn’t meet my expectations, and the result was a waste of time for both the organisation and for me.

My situation involved registering for an event. Some weeks ago, I received an email invitation to an event that’s on in Brisbane this weekend. I decided to attend, as it sounded like a good opportunity to learn some useful strategies for my business.

I registered online, and the form performed exactly as I expected. At the end of the process, I clicked the ‘submit’ button, and got a congratulations message saying that my registration had been processed and I should look out for an email confirmation. I expected the email to arrive almost immediately, as that’s my standard experience with online orders. 

A few days after registering, I realised that I had never received the confirmation email. I assumed that something had gone wrong with the processing, so I registered again. Once again, I registered successfully, and received the message saying that I should watch my email.

A few days ago, I realised that the event was getting close and I still hadn’t received an email confirmation. I had no idea whether the event was actually going ahead. Nothing had been updated on the website, so it was no help.

I registered once again, using a different email address this time. Same process. Same result. Later that day, I emailed the organisers, asking whether the event was going ahead and explaining my three registration attempts.

On Tuesday, the organisation called to confirm my registration, give me the details of the event, and let me know that the program would be emailed to me on Thursday. How odd to do that by phone! Today (Wednesday) I had a second call confirming my second registration. I guess I’ll get another call tomorrow!

It seems likely that the organisation always planned to confirm attendance by phone, and always planned to send the confirmation emails two days before the event. They could have managed my expectations by including this information on their website or sending it to me as soon as I registered. 

If they had managed my expectations more successfully, I would have felt more confident – both about the event’s value and about their registration processes. Instead, I inflated their registration numbers and I’m left wondering whether the event will be worth attending.  

My take-away message is this: think hard about what it’s like to be part of your audience. How will they interact with your systems? What expectations will they have? Will they be impressed with the way that you communicate? Then, do everything in your power to meet and manage those expectations.