At the heart of the Narrative Observatory @ Harmony Labs are people. By centering people in our research we can understand to what extent they encounter an issue, narrative, or type of content, like disinformation, in their media and cultural intake. It can help us to better understand vulnerabilities, opportunities, and risks, and to form hypotheses for narrative intervention with our partners. So, by the time our partners are ready to produce content, we know whom we should be speaking to, how, and where.
To make sense of the hundreds of thousands of people who participate in our opt-in research panels, we use audience “segments.” Traditionally this type of segmentation has been used to understand people in terms of their demography: age, race, and gender. That approach has been a necessity for many decades, because most of the data we’ve had access to only included those types of markers. But those markers don’t define true audiences: groups of people who share the same values and go to the same places to consume the same stories.
We’ve found that values are the best predictor of cultural affinity because values represent the personal goals, story arcs and endings that inspire us. These values form the foundation for the four key audiences we use in our research — based on the universal human values from Shalom Shwartz — and have another feature that makes them invaluable as a tool for understanding people: they make neighborhoods.
The 4-values distinct audiences from the Narrative Observatory @ Harmony Labs that we use to understand how people encounter issues, narratives, or types of content.
Not everyone is in just one of the four audience quadrants. For example, Riki Conrey, our Science Director, is People Power with a strong dash of Tough Cookies. She can’t really watch anything less cozy than the Great British Bake Off, but she reads the Washington Post and the New York Times. Her values are audience-bridging values: tradition, family, responsibility, and tolerance. Our Communications Director, Paul Johnson, is also squarely in the People Power quadrant but ends up consuming a lot of If You Say So media — and is desperate to find common ground in these story worlds with his teenage son.
When the shared spaces, or the spaces between the audiences mean something, segmentation becomes less a reductionist exercise in stereotyping than a vocabulary for describing the diversity of people’s story choices. And the audiences come to form a true map, with direction, volume, and intensity, of those experiences.
Here’s a map of who watches Fox News on YouTube. Spoiler alert: it’s mainly Don’t Tread on Me.
Compare this with CNN on YouTube. A large density of the audience is People Power, but it also reaches down into Tough Cookies and all the way over into If You Say So. There’s even a tiny dot of interest in the same audience that watches Fox News.
The center of gravity of Fox News on YouTube is in just one audience: Don’t Tread on Me. CNN has broader appeal with a center of gravity firmly in People Power. ABC News, with its homier, more local feel is a bridging opportunity. It appeals to people on the border of community-focused People Power and security-focused Tough Cookies.
While these types of general insights, i.e. “who is consuming news,” can be interesting directionally, they aren’t as interesting as something even more specific, like a social issue we might want to influence. By centering our audience research on the specific stories people are consuming, we can start to help answer questions like: how and how often does my issue show up for audiences?; how do audiences interact with issue-relevant content?; are there healthy narratives out there my work can help grow? It can also provide a framework for evaluating the impact of the content we create.
Take for example the issue of “guns.” There’s a large swathe of people from Don’t Tread on Me through If You Say So being reached with stories about guns, some even breaching the border of People Power. In the context of the “values” for each of the audiences referred to earlier, that is the hemisphere of the audience that focuses on the “me” over the “we.”
The brightest spot here is in Don’t Tread on Me where “guns” often represent security and defense. But the trailing audience that extends up through If You Say So is encountering guns through many types of stories, especially Esports where weaponry is a top topic for streaming gamers.
If guns and weaponry bridge Don’t Tread on Me and If You Say So, what bridges If You Say So with their other neighbor, People Power? Popular music, especially Hip Hop.
We’ve spent much of the last 18 months identifying story opportunities and threats like these for our partners who are working to shift the cultural narratives that condition public understanding and constrain institutional action on issues like poverty, racial justice, immigration, or climate. For all of them, putting people in the center of mapping exercises like this one has changed the game. Instead of just creating campaigns that try to meet the audience where they are, there’s been a shift towards also meeting the audience where we are — in the cultural spaces that we authentically share.