At Blue Volcano Media, we use the word “audience” a lot, as in, We have to build this audience! Listen to your audience! Who is your audience?
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking that we’re using that word all wrong. In fact, I think the word is the wrong word to use when referring to the folks with whom we’re engaging all day, every day, on our clients’ various social networks. Sure, we use audience in proposals, newsletters, emails, and even blog posts. I’ve used it in countless speaking engagements, client presentations, reports, and meetings. And why not? Social media folks always talk about reaching out to one’s audience, i.e., both the people who actively follow your brand as well as those who could be following your brand but aren’t aware of you and/or your social media presence just yet.
But is that really the right term? Webster’s defines audience as a group of listeners or spectators, or a reading, viewing or listening public. Actually, the very first definition is the act or state of hearing.
At first blush, that sounds just about right. Marketers and advertisers have talked about audiences ad nauseam over the years: the audience for a client’s commercial, ad, or brochure. An audience of tens of millions tune in to watch the Super Bowl every year. Beyoncé’s concerts always attract huge audiences. An estimated half a billion people around the world sat glued in front of their television sets back in 1969 and served as the collective, global audience to the first transmission from the moon by the first humans to ever walk on it.
Yet when you think about it, that’s not what social media is doing. Not if you’re doing it right, anyway. You’re not merely transmitting words and pictures to an audience, the very definition of which assumes a certain level of passivity. No one is sitting back waiting for golden words to pour out of your mouth, in the way that Beyoncé fans do in massive arenas. And the Super Bowl may have become a very social media-centric event, but the social stuff is pretty recent. Most previous Super Bowls weren’t about fans texting furiously to their friends and to the brands splashed across the screen in million-dollar, half-minute increments. They were about folks gathered around the TV and absorbing the game, not interacting with it.
Audience is who you talk to, not engage with. It’s not a conversation but a monologue. You (the advertiser or marketer) have your little prepared speech/ad/commercial/brochure/sales pitch, and you deliver it with clipped precision (with maybe a little, jaunty jingle thrown in), and then you sit back and start watching your metrics. Remember: it’s about folks listening, viewing or reading. It’s not about…engaging.
Now there’s another oft-used word in social media: engagement. The thing is, that’s actually a good word to describe what works in social media. Back to my trusty Webster’s: engagement is defined as emotional involvement or commitment.
Now, how exactly does that jibe with the previous definition we offered up for audience? Audience is passive, non-participatory, inert. You don’t engage with an audience. Ads don’t engage with an audience. Commercials don’t engage with an audience. Advertisers send out their message like NASA shooting a rocket into outer space laden with data, and then hope that someone, somewhere gets it.
Ad metrics can tell you how many people heard it, when, how much it cost you to send that message, and maybe even how many people (approximately) actually performed an action as a result of that message, but it can’t tell you anything about what the people actually thought or felt about your message. If you do — via surveys, polls, comment cards, etc. — it’s always long after the fact, and even then it may not reflect the respondent’s true feelings and thoughts, given the passage of time.
In other words, there’s no emotional involvement or commitment. There’s no engagement.
Clearly, then, we need a better word than audience. A word that truly describes what it means to sit down in front of your computer and start having conversations — real, genuine, candid conversations — with the people who follow, like, and link to you. A word that reflects the give-and-take, honest, no-holds-barred nature of social media. Remember that ads are about controlled messages, where the advertiser spins a monologue about its product or service and then hands it all on a platter for the audience to consume.
In social media, no one controls the conversation. Sure, advertisers can do all they can to help shape it, nurture it, expand it, promote it, etc., but as many, many, MANY corporate social media crises have proven (Hello, Chrysler! Good morning, Burger King!), you can no longer control it. Ever. The control room has left the building. Social media is all about user-generated content, and the user — heretofore lacking the broadcasting power and budget of institutional publishers and advertisers — ain’t afraid to use it.
So here’s a new word we’re going to start using within Blue Volcano Media, one that’s already in widespread use within many other social media agencies elsewhere: community. Again, back to my trusty Webster’s, which defines community as an interacting population of various kinds of individuals in a common location (underlined emphasis mine).
In a community, people talk. They argue. They discuss, debate, invite others to join in, shout, commiserate, compliment, promote, and share. They interact. They engage.
And that’s what brands must do if they ultimately want to succeed in social media. They must create a community, not cling to the outdated idea that an audience is still what they must strive for. Audience is so 20th century, so 1994. Since BBS began to flower in the 1980s, conversations have poured out of the dark corners of the Internet and taken over its networks. No matter how much money you have, you can’t control the message anymore. Egypt’s civilian protesters — who overthrew a dictator decades overdue for it — relied heavily on Twitter to organize and share news and information. God forbid you call them an audience. Now that’s emotional commitment.
That’s not to say that you would want your audience community members to start a riot on your Facebook page or harangue you on Twitter. What you, as the brand, want is to get down from your pedestal from whence you used to broadcast your ads and start chatting with the folks who are your buyers, users, consumers, listeners, fans, followers. Say hi to them when they join your comment thread. Thank them for following you. Take pictures of them in your store and post them on Facebook (with their permission, of course!). (Three Dog Bakery, a gourmet bake shop franchise with two branches in North Texas, does just that, and boy, do they have a lot of fans for a local dog-only bakery!) Give them exclusive discounts on your products or services.
And yes, listen to them when they complain about your service. Don’t just ban them from your page or — horrors! — delete the comment entirely. Have more respect for your community members’ intelligence than that and address the criticism head-on. In social media, everyone can hear everyone else’s scream, and you don’t want to come across as the censor. As many brands have found out the hard way, social media folks don’t like that. At all.
So there you go. Rather than social media managers and coordinators, we have community managers and coordinators. It’s a recognition that social media isn’t just a tool anymore but a powerful platform on which communities are built, brand reputations are made, and brand ambassadors are discovered.
How are you engaging with your community? When was the last time you said Good morning on Twitter or Facebook? Do you know who your most ardent community member is?
Photo by Iguana Jo on Flickr.