Don't reduce your audience to a stereotype

Paul Boag

One of the biggest dangers as a web designer or website owner is to stereotype your users and so misjudge their needs and attitudes.

I am currently speaking at a conference in Oslo, Norway. It has been a great conference and from what I can gather the first of its kind in the country. It is always so encouraging to see the web community coming together for an event like this.

The conference organisers have done a great job, especially as it is their first conference on this scale. However, two things beyond the control of the organisers have given me pause for thought. I have found myself marvelling at how easily we put people (our users in particular) into predefined stereotyped boxes.

Marketing to the geek stereotype

My first thought was about the host of the event. This is a job I have done myself a number of times and one I am doing again at the upcoming Future of Web Design conference in New York. Essentially it involves introducing the various speakers, engaging in a little light banter with the audience and generally ensuring everything runs smoothly.

Often this job is done by the conference organiser. However as in the cases where I have hosted events, the organisers of FrontEnd 2010 decided it would be more sensible to get somebody to do the job for them.

Although I haven’t asked, I would guess that the person they chose is some form of professional entertainer. He is relaxed, confident and obviously enjoys being on stage. However, he knows nothing about the web or the web design community. Worse still he has done no research into either the industry, speakers or most importantly audience. He has instead made massive assumption.

It is obviously that in his mind all ‘geeks’ are all young lads who like to think about sex and will enjoy innuendo and risky humour. His comments have often been massively inappropriate despite an audience made up of a considerable number of women.

Geek thinking about code and sex

Vlue, Shutterstock

Was this the organisers fault? Not at all. After all if you employee a professional you expect them to know the audience and do their research.

The second example of misjudging the audience was was made by one of the sponsors. With the same misconception of geeks this sponsor felt that the best way to attract people to his booth was to drape it with scantily clad woman and hand out semi-erotic calendars.

Misjudging your audience has wide reaching implications

It’s not that I have anything against half naked women or even the occasional risky joke. My problem is that they both misjudged the audience and damaged their own reputations (or in the case of the host that of the conference itself).

Also they have perpetuated a stereotype that is already preventing women from entering the sector. As a community we have worked hard to squash sexism and encourage more female speakers, bloggers and contributors. Like their male counterpart women have a lot to offer the web design community. However, they still seem to have to fight against the immaturity of both the community itself and outside influences like our host and sponsor.

Alienating the influencers

I guess it could be argued that although these approaches maybe in bad taste they work from a marketing perspective. It is certainly true that the host did make some people laugh and the booth girls make their sponsor the most memorable.

booth babes

iJammin, Flickr

However, ultimately the benefits are outweighed by the damage to their brands. It certainly did not go down well with the speakers (both male and female) who felt that these people undermined all that had been achieved in creating a favourable environment for women. Any marketeer will tell you that the last people you should alienate are the influencers who have a voice and audience within the community you are trying to reach. In short don’t piss off the speakers ;-)

How does this apply to me?

So what is the lesson here? My aim is not to berate these individuals but merely to draw a lesson for those of us who are trying to reach an audience whether online or off.

The lesson is simple. Make sure you really know your audience and don’t simply reduce them to a stereotyped characature. Be sure you understand what motivates them, what their values are, and fully grasp how they will respond to the way you chose to communicate with them.