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  • Writer's pictureSimon Staffans

Reaching out, engaging audiences – but to which extent?

The Holy Grail of creating content is to reach an audience and have them engage with the story you’re telling them. For the most part it will be an engagement you’ll never experience yourself, that will only manifest in sales, views, downloads or some other metric. To a certain extent you can observe the engagement through interactions – social media replies, retweets or re-grams of your hashtag, followers on different platforms – but as those are also fleeting, as they mainly serve to place you somewhere on the ladder in comparison to other pieces of content out there.

The most revealing way to measure how your intended audience engages with your content is to see how their activities ultimately impact what you’re creating and distributing. This is one of the different definitions that Hearken’s Jennifer Brandel identified last week, which ties into how we view our audiences – do we look at them as consumers, as co-creators or as shareholders? Or should we look at them as even more involved, even more of a similarly-levelled partner, as a part of a collective together with us?

The theories about the Collective Journey put forth by Jeff Gomez et al talk about the changes our connected, super-positioned lives have brought to how we engage with content and with the creators of that content. In a post last month Jeff talks about social self-organisation, as well as the spider-model in contrast to the starfish model as examples of how movements can be enabled through collective journeys – spiders being more traditional top-down organisations while starfish are leaderless collectives. I encourage you to read the blog post, linked above; it is highly informative.

The question we need to ask ourselves as creators is how much engagement do we actually want? How much can we accept and take in and how much are we actually willing to listen to the audience? In the best of worlds, a lot. In reality often a bit less.

There’s been a growing trend among different players to focus less on large scale audiences and more on smaller niche audiences. The theory is that an engaged smaller audience won’t run away with your story or your brand, but can still act as a conduit to larger audiences. Another concern is the increasingly polarised political landscape globally, which can drag brands and publishers into ideological battles they have no interest in participating in. A study by Nielsen lab published last weeks looks at exactly this – how scale can break communities – and found numerous examples of “weaponised” online communities, “fuelled by political attacks on the organisations and their journalists”. The organisations that Nielsen studied had drawn their conclusions – which also were based on pure economical thinking:

What I’ve learned is that innovation is not bells and whistles and ticks. I think it’s finding where audiences are and then telling them stories in interesting ways that make them think differently…I learned that maybe sometimes your end shouldn’t be to build up these huge audiences. Maybe what you want is a smaller quality audience who’ll stick with you. And give you money. Ferial Haffajee, Daily Maverick

There is also a growing concern regarding the vulnerability of using different platforms. Lately there have been several examples of outlets building a large following on, for instance, WhatsApp, only to have the platform change their terms of service, rendering the previous model of publishing impossible. Transitioning to a new platform has proved difficult, at least to do so quickly – and there’s nothing to say that new platforms, be they Telegram, BitChute or something else, won’t render themselves impossible to work on in the future either. Not to mention the ever-changing algorithms and policies of big platforms like Facebook, Twitter etc, which can wreak havoc with the best laid-out plans for content distribution.

The key would seem to make sure we’re not being held ransom to platforms. The solution is more difficult – but one solution can be to have a contingency plan in place from the start; a web site or a network of platforms, cross-publishing and cross-interacting from the very start, letting people find you again, quickly, if one platform is shut for you.

To conclude – we’re living in a world where what we want is an engaged, loyal audience. What we get is a collective of individuals, the challenge of keeping them validated and engaged, the challenge of keeping the large a group enough to help fund us and help get the word out about our content but small enough not to be weaponised against us.

It’s a challenge, but it’s an exciting one.

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