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  • Ally Castle

More than a number


In my experience there are some TV types (and all sorts of content-makers) who seem to only appreciate their audience when it comes to the hard numbers. They think of them only really in terms of overnight ratings, box office attendance, circulation figures, unique visitors, click throughs, shares, likes and downloads. It can feel like the end consumer exists, if anything, to provide validation for their creative genius or for use in a sales pitch to generate more business.

But not fully engaging with the audience - dare I say, not taking them seriously enough - means many are missing a trick. Well, in my view at least nine. Here’s why:

1. They like to see truths about themselves reflected back

As humans we have two potentially contradictory curiosities: we like to see ourselves reflected back to ourselves (and then projected out to others), but at the same time we love to get inside the heads and worlds of those totally different from us. And then there’s the gap in between – making sense of how and why we differ. But for my money, this is all to serve one fairly basic human instinct – to know and justify ourselves. Our behaviours, our tastes, our values, our choices. If we don’t know our audiences in all their breadth and complexity, what they care about and what makes them tick, we’re missing a chance to give them content on a subject that probably most interests them in the world: themselves.

2. If you don’t have them, someone else will

There’s a lot of talk about audiences being fickle these days.I think this is misnomer, and the reality is that they are fussy rather than fickle. They have high standards, but once they have found somewhere that meets them, they can be fiercely loyal. Combine this with (in the nicest possible way) a significant dose of good old fashioned laziness, and you get some serious habit-forming going on. Netflix famously consider their competition to be anything which takes up their customers’ time and attention. You need to work with your audience because if you don’t, someone else is more than willing to put the effort in to entice them over into their camp - and then it will be all the harder to get win them over.

3. They’re keen for social currency

Playground chatter, water cooler moments, dinner party small talk, viral content, Twitter memes – whatever the label, whatever the forum, the principle remains the same: we love something that brings us together. For the most part, we want to connect and belong. If you can tell a genuinely relevant, intriguing, memorable story which provides that, you are onto a good thing. But how are you going to know what they want to talk about if you don’t know what they care about or what they want to be seen to care about – in other word, what presses their social buttons?

4. They’re nearly as good as you at your job

It’s a big cliché to say that audiences today are “media savvy”. But that’s what this boils down to. They know how to unpack what you’re trying to do and why – and if content isn’t rooted in clear, engaging concepts and isn’t executed well with an eye to understanding how the audience are going to get value out of it, then they will see right through it. There’s a healthy degree of cynicism among our audiences, which seems inversely proportionate to their age. Most people under the age of 25 could probably do your job in a heartbeat. The only way to stay ahead of them is to at the very least keep up with them by coming alongside them.

5. They’re doing it too

One step on from their media literacy is the audience’s editorial skills. During the emergence of so-called Web 2.0, there was lots of talk about all brands being publishers. Well, since the rise of social media, now all consumers are producers. They are content-makers. Let’s get this into proportion; they are not all shooting documentaries or comedy shorts, they are not all vloggers and YouTubers. Although many are. And most are telling stories (albeit via 140 characters, photo collections or 6 second videos) - mostly about themselves, on a more than daily basis. There’s much we can learn and borrow from what they’re doing; they are far more experimental than most people being paid to do this stuff for a living who are subject to lots of corporate restrictions. But at the very least we need to acknowledge their skills and their expectations of us in the light of that.

6. They demand value out of their investment in you

I’ve argued elsewhere that most creativity is a two-way exchange. Our audiences give us time, loyalty, money, emotional investment, and often recommend and promote us. They expect something back from us. This speaks to a wider social trend recently identified as the move from consumer to citizen, whereby, instead of organsiations asking what they can sell to people, they are increasingly asking what we can all participate in and contribute to. In other words, adopting a genuine "in it together" approach.

Our audiences will give to us what we need from them, if we meet their needs to entertain and engage them. To enhance their life in some way – whether that be through mindless escapism, meaningful learning or anywhere in between. The satirical website The Poke has as its strapline the phrase ‘time well wasted’, positioning itself unashamedly as the very best of guilty pleasures. But I think most content-makers would be doing well if their audiences could say this about their content. If we don’t give back, if we don’t give them what they want and need (whether they knew it beforehand or not), if we don’t give them a valuable experience, then how can we expect them to give us what we need from them so that we can keep doing what we love?

7. They, in turn, have their own audiences

It’s an age-old concept that everyone’s a critic. It’s just that these days, these critics have access to media channels that enable them to reach hundreds of others within mille-seconds with their views. If everyone is a critic, then everyone also has the potential to be an advocate. We need them, but we also need their friends and networks both on and offline. Lose one viewer, fail to connect with one consumer and you’re missing out on so much more than just them.

8. Your brand only exists if it exists in their head

Shocker alert: your brand doesn’t actually exist. It’s not in your brand bible document, the diagrammatic representation of your consumer journeys, it’s not in your logo or your opening titles, it’s not in your social media strategy or your talent ambassadors. It’s not a part of your business model or your revenue streams. Your product is in all those things. But your brand is only a brand if it’s considered a brand by your audience. Your audience make your content a brand rather than a product. It’s them and the set of meanings, associations and currency that they extract from your content, which give you something which in turn gives you commercial and/or professional value.

So treat them well, know them and value them, take their feedback and input, and give them what they want and need, because they are the final but essential piece of the brand-building jigsaw which is what makes your content so much more than a TV show or a video clip, or a podcast or a website.

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