An Audience of Users

Who’s listening to you?

I’ve always written for myself. I guess I thought one day I’d have a kid and he’d read all my stuff and think, Whoa, the Peace Corps was pretty hard-core.

Seriously. It was hard-core.

Until I became a journalist, I didn’t really care if anyone read what I wrote; in fact, I preferred the nonjudgmental pages of my journals.

But journalism commoditizes writing. That’s not a bad thing; it just means that what you write serves a more concrete purpose. It also means that you have “users” — and as any good editor or CEO knows, ignoring your users is a shortcut to irrelevance.

Media is a tricky business because it splits your users (the audience) and your customers (the advertisers) into two different camps, often with different agendas. (Read more about that here.) Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to leverage the space between audience, users, and customers.

Redefining Audience

At Dreamforce last week, I attended a storytelling session led by Salesforce’s Chief Creative Officer, John Zissimos. He cautioned against the fallacy of believing you are the audience:

I know the Dreamforce audience, and I keep them in my mind: What are they coming to see? What are their hopes and dreams? What is it that they want? Never forget that you are not the audience.

That’s fair; my journals are getting dusty in a box somewhere. But here’s a striking parallel, from Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup:

We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want, or what we think they should want.

The most forward-thinking media companies are obsessed with audience, with truly understanding whom they’re serving, and why. They realize that the people who make up their audiences are much smarter and more complex than metrics like pageviews and click-through rates might suggest. Witness BuzzFeed’s burgeoning news operation and Medium’s focus on total time reading.

These developments reflect the subtle but growing differentiation between audience and user. Audience is passive; it implies watching an event rather than participating in it, and its synonyms include spectators and onlookers. User is active; the noun (“user”) wouldn’t exist without the verb (“to use”). In order to be a user, you must engage.

Toward the User

Try to draw a bright white line between audience and user, though, and it gets messy. Does reading count as engagement, even if you never comment or recommend this post?

In my view, it does. Here’s why: every time you read something I write, we get closer to each other. I become more of a real person to you, and vice versa. Maybe, after reading five of my stories, you’re so annoyed that you’re compelled to comment — at which point I can gleefully celebrate a newly minted user. In a perfect contentual relationship, this closer association means I’ll be able to learn more about what you want — and in turn, I’ll be better equipped to meet your needs.

The Customer Funnel

Brands take the relationship a step further: from user to customer.

In its clumsiest form, this means taking your users and pushing them into a customer funnel — in other words, selling them stuff. But this isn’t how good content marketing works. Unless a user already wants to buy, it’s the opposite of listening to your users; it’s imposing on them your need to sell your product.

At its best, content marketing strikes the delicate balance between helping a company meet its need to sell while also meeting the needs of the varied audience, users, and customers it doesn’t want to alienate. This can take a long time, but it works. I believe content marketing is uniquely situated to provide a path from awareness to purchase for those users who may eventually want your product, while still providing value to those users who don’t want it (or don’t want it right now, or have already bought it). Media organizations must do the same thing — usually, by advertising (in a variety of formats) to their loyal group of users, or by convincing them to pay for the product via subscription or donation.

Meeting the Challenge

Turning audience into users and (some) users into customers isn’t easy. In my view, most brands and media organizations face three main hurdles:

  1. Insights into who their users are, how they are consuming content, and why they are engaging
  2. Time to build relationships across multiple channels with multiple user groups with differing needs
  3. Understanding of the problem as a “how” question rather than a “who/what” question (more on that here)

In order to truly understand and interact with our audience, users, and customers, we need to know not only who they are and what they’re reading/watching/sharing, but also how and why they came to us. This calls for refocusing on the right metrics, using robust analytics tools, and employing the expertise to understand our data. This, of course, takes time — and so does interaction. If we want to build deeper connections with our users, we’ll have to put the time in.

But I think the first and most important step is simply understanding that it’s not about creating that one amazing piece of “viral” content or finding that one super-engaged, hungry-to-buy audience member who you can quickly stuff down the customer funnel. It’s about thinking more expansively about the definitions of “audience” and “user,” and finding ways to meet their needs, regardless of where they are on that journey.

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