In her groundbreaking study From The Waltons To Walter White: The Rise of Immersive Content, cultural anthropologist Susan Kresnicka identified four cultural shifts in the way audiences consume content and why. In our hyper connected digital world, audiences are not only constantly distracted — they’re rapidly evolving in their preferences for where they spend their time and how they value experiences. The way we reach these audiences needs to evolve as well.

One of the cultural shifts she identifies is an awakening to human difference, which is something that forms the cornerstone of any great cultural story whether it is told from the stage or the screen. The best arts, culture and entertainment experiences reflect these differences in our society (good and bad), and being receptive to ensuring people have equitable access to these stories is the key to innovation in audience inclusivity, development and engagement.

Technological advances continue to help us understand audience preferences in ways we never thought possible ten years ago, but for some reason there are still gaps in recognizing how people perceive value. Organizations ignore this at their peril, and the graveyard of once powerful now irrelevant corporate giants is a sobering reminder of what is in store for those who ignore the signposts. Blockbuster famously labeled Netflix ‘ridiculous’ because it was a ‘niche’ business. It’s not that there was no measurement or data here. They were just measuring the wrong things.

Audience feedback can be a tricky thing — but if we listen for patterns, we can learn something.

Loading out to an undisclosed location to perform for our troops.

My first experience with understanding the value of audience feedback goes back to 1992 as a soldier. My job in the US Air Force was performing as a comic and dancer to raise morale for coalition troops all over the world in the aftermath of Desert Storm — including many dangerous places. We were a full production show called Tops In Blue which started in 1953 with one mission: family entertaining family. It was a grueling tour which took me to dozens of countries and 46 states every ten months. We consistently worked 18-21 hour days and basic needs like a hot shower and food were considered luxuries.

As the show came to a close in each of the 140 locations we were never permitted to retreat to the dressing rooms (which were tents) or head back to the hotel (which was a bus) to relax. We had 60,000 pounds of gear to break down and pack up in less than three hours and our number one priority was to be accessible — speaking with each and every soldier after the show to thank them for coming. And to listen.

We had to be just as handy with a microphone as we were with a weapon.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the original ‘social media’.

My conversations with so many of those brave soldiers and their feedback stuck with me and it made the grueling schedule more bearable. Although the Tops In Blue tour had an average 65% washout rate (65% of the performing soldiers who started the tour never made it to the end) those of us who stuck it out learned a valuable but often overlooked lesson.

Audience matters.

Decades later, when I was trying to decide what to charge a local audience for tickets for a new show I wrote, I knew the answer was right in front of me.

This time the audience wasn’t sitting on tanks.

This time I wasn’t performing under the threat of sniper fire.

But their feedback mattered — and the patterns were loud and clear. They would have gladly paid more, and value of the experience was highest afterwards.

We built that ethos into every feature of and it still gives me a thrill to shake hands with each audience member after one of my shows. I’ll take that over social media any day.

-Kahlil Ashanti

Kahlil Ashanti is an actor, web developer and entrepreneur. He is also the Founder and CEO of, the world’s first digital pay-what-you-want platform.

Actor, Web Developer and creator of I dig audiences of all sizes shapes and colors. Bring them all together in one big jambalaya.

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