Turning an Audience Into a Community

by Dan Blank on March 14, 2008

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The Changing Relationship With Your Audience

More and more, I am watching consumers become creators, and audiences interacting with those who define the agenda. There is a power shift going on, with one simple thing that will decide whether this is a threat to publishing & media businesses, or an opportunity for incredible growth:
Empowering the audience to become a community.

I want to share two examples that illustrate the shift that is occuring:

  • Conference Disaster: Listening to the Audience.
    This week, the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference was held in Texas, which focused on emerging technologies. One of the biggest sessions was an onstage interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by Business Week’s Sarah Lacy.

    During the interview, however, the audience revolted. They were offended at her interviewing style, lack of questions, and inability to allow Mark to speak. While some did the traditional thing, and simply walked out or sat quietly through it, others took control.

    Many audience members began expressing their opinions via Twitter, a sort of public instant messaging service. Total strangers in the crowd were sharing their feelings, and uniting.

    While a lot has been written about this event, Jeff Jarvis had the keenest insight as to how the person with the microphone needs to hand over power to their audience:

    • Problem: “Lacy’s biggest mistake was not knowing her audience.”
    • Solution: “If I were up there, I’d have blogged a week before asking SXSWers what I should discuss with Zuckerberg. And if things still went sour with my own questions, I’d have opened up the discussion to the floor with the simple question: What do you want to know?… She didn’t understand that the people in the crowd were already coalescing in Twitter and blogs into an instant consensus.”

    Michael Arrington and Robert Scoble (warning: profanity) also analyzed the event.

    At another conference panel session, an unsatisfied crowd coordinated antics to upset things a bit: by using Twitter as a communication backchannel: “Suddenly literally l/10th of the room started coughing intermittently – for the rest of the panel.”

    While this is a childish example, two things are amazing here:

    • The amount of real-time data you can receive to find out if you are satisfying your audience’s needs.
    • The audience’s increased expectation that they should be a part of the process.
  • Communication: Left Out of the Conversation
    The Sunday New York Times had an article describing how much instant messaging has infiltrated our culture. One comical example was especially telling – a father describes driving her daughter and a friend:

    “When Mr. Hampton looked into his rearview mirror he saw his daughter sending a text message on her cellphone. “Katie, you shouldn’t be texting all the time,” Mr. Hampton recalled telling her. “Your friends are there. It’s rude.” Katie rolled her eyes again. “But, Dad, we’re texting each other,” she replied with a harrumph. “I don”t want you to hear what I’m saying.”

    How different is this from the conference example above? In both cases, a power shift is going on, and those with authority are finding themselves losing control, and out of the conversation. The question to ask is: how will this shift affect publishing and media businesses? How can this shift be leveraged to strengthen and grow ties with your audience?

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Last week, Newsweek published an article titled “The Revenge of the Experts,” which made the statement: “The individual user has been king on the Internet, but the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward edited information vetted by professionals.”

Terry Heaton took offense to the article, saying they missed the point in pitting “experts against amateurs:”

“…there is no movement by amateurs to take anything away from professionals, and this is especially true in media. The extent to which everyday people look to non-traditional sources of information today is not an indication that they are being lured away from “truth” by roaming mobs of ignorant automatons. That defection is more illustrative of the failure of traditional, institutional media than anything else…”

So what does all this mean? Mindy McAdams puts it best:

An audience is not a community.

And connecting to your community is about more than a few “action items.”

  • A survey is not “listening to your community.”
  • Web metrics showing the growth of your “audience” does not reflect whether you are truly meeting the needs of your community.
  • Some positive emails from readers is not vindication of a particular strategy.

Given: each of these three things can provide amazing data – but it is not the end of communication process with a particular community. Further steps that can be taken:

  • Involve your audience in the process: every process.
  • Find ways to allow them to interact with each other.
  • Focus on identifying unmet needs, in order to build and nurture the community.

Even from a business perspective, this makes sense:

An audience can easily change loyalties. A community does not.

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