Convening an audience: the new challenge for marketing

sermon_mount2I believe there are now two consumer worlds: the world of the audience (the world of ‘traditional’ media and marketing) and the world of the individual (the world of social media). These worlds are very different, not least because in the world of social media consumers will expect to be treated as an individual and will tend to resent or ignore attempts to treat them as just another member of an audience. This doesn’t mean that consumers don’t ever want to be treated as a member of an audience, just not when they are in the social digital space.

This presents two problems for brands. First, almost everything we know about marketing (including digital marketing / media) comes out of the world of the audience. Marketing, to date, has essentially been audience-based marketing. But putting audience-based approaches into the social space just doesn’t work, because it can’t support the potential for creating high-value relationships with individuals. Traditional marketing is a high reach but low engagement business and there is no point in putting the low engagement techniques of traditional marketing into the low reach environment of social media.

Audiences are very hard to find or create in the world of social media. This is because when people are in this space they are looking to create connections and you can’t create connections with an audience, only with individuals or within groups. The social media space is a medium of connection, not a medium of distribution. When a brand operates within the social space it has to accept that it can realistically only talk to very few people at any one time so it therefore has to (and can) create relationships of far higher value than anything that is associated with traditional marketing. But you only do this by recognising what it is that people want from you in this space, which is real-time individualised response and recognition, answers to questions and information.

However, this fact is not stopping many brands from trying dump audience-based, low engagement approaches in the social digital space. Content marketing is the latest iteration of such an attempt. Realistically, what quality of relationship can you create with someone off-the-back of requiring them to consume a piece of content, especially one that has been designed to be consumed by everyone else? It doesn’t matter how entertaining, engaging or informative such content is, if it is designed to be consumed en-mass, by an audience of people (as most content is), it is by definition never going to be entertaining, engaging or informative enough to work in the world of the individual.

The second problem for brands is that they still need to be able to operate in the world of the audience. Consumers can, and do, move seamlessly between these two worlds and brands need to be able to follow them. You don’t do this by trying to converge these two worlds (converged media). Neither do you do it by trying to create some sort of hybrid creature, which is traditional content with ‘engagement’ opportunities bolted onto it (like or share buttons).

Most of what I have written in this blog to date has focused on how brands need to operate within the social digital space (the world of the individual) – but now I want to turn my attention to the world of the audience. The reason for this is that I like success much more than I like failure. In the next few years we are going to continue to witness a stream of failed attempts in the social digital space, all of which will be hyped at the time as the ‘latest thing’ but all of which will all end up being quietly abandoned, or written off as ‘learning experiences’. This journey will end with the conclusion that social media itself was basically an over-rated phenomenon that didn’t work, rather than a recognition that (audience-based) marketing is a phenomenon that didn’t work in social media.

Rather than embark on a journey to failure, marketing people would be far more productively employed thinking afresh about how to operate within the space where audiences still exist. In fact, I think there is a real imperative here. In our infatuation with social media, or our belief that there is still one space where the audience and the individual can be ‘converged’ we will end up losing sight of just what it is that has created brands in the first place. Coca-Cola, for example, has said that it is moving away from creative excellence to content excellence. This is a huge mistake, in my opinion, because creative excellence is the bedrock upon which Coca-Cola (and all other successful mass consumer brands) is based. Coca-Cola has to have a global audience. It has to create a sense within a group that constitutes the majority of people on the planet, that collectively they share something in common through their consumption of a slightly strange tasting, sweet, brown, fizzy liquid – or else it will cease to be Coca-Cola. And it isn’t going to do that by splattering them all with content, most of which has absolutely nothing to do with the brand or anything that the brand could credibly be said to ‘stand for’.

Old-fashioned marketing is still extremely important, albeit it cannot continue to operate in the old-fashioned way. The main reason for this is that audiences are harder to come by. In the good old days, you could very easily get yourself in front of an audience simply by buying media. But, as we all know, the audience has been abandoning media and the media itself has been fragmenting. This means that reaching an audience is now a task that cannot simply be achieved by paying the media agency.

This defines the new challenge for marketing, which is how to convene an audience. How do we attract attention from audience-sized groups of people, now that we can’t buy sufficient attendance or attention? We are moving into a world where there is no target audience, brands have to become the target for an audience.

So what is the answer? Well, there isn’t an easy one that I have come across – one of the reasons that ‘traditional’ marketers need to get on the case. But there are some areas, none of which are mutually exclusive by the way, within which I think the answer may lie.

Stand for something (other than bull-shit)

To date brands have always stood behind something – and that has been a carefully cultivated and frequently highly artificial ‘brand image’. Now they have to stand for something. But what is it they should stand for?

I think you can go one of two ways here. One option is to stand for what it is your brand actually does – which is something most brands claim, but very few actually do. The word passion is one of the most over-used words in marketing. Brands readily declare their passion for their products, their consumers or their desire to create consumers who are passionate about their brand. Purina, for example, has as its tag line ‘You Pet: Our Passion’. But we all (in marketing) know that ninety-nine per cent of time this is pure bull-shit. And consumers are also starting to realise this as well as resenting the suggestion that they, as consumers, should aspire to become passionate about, or be ‘surprised and delighted’ by a mere brand.  Surprise and delight is a territory I reserve for my kids, not a soft drink.

Marketing, as a discipline, has become almost totally divorced from the products it sells. Marketing is basically passionate about nothing except, occasionally, marketing. You can’t blame it in a way. It is very difficult to get excited about toothpaste, albeit it is much easier to get excited about working for a toothpaste ‘brand’ especially if doing so means that you can command a large marketing budget and work for a leading marketing organisation such as P&G.

It is not so much that toothpaste marketers have to get passionate about toothpaste, it is rather than they have to stop the pretence to passion while at the same time generating (and demonstrating) a decently credible level of interest and expertise in cleaning teeth. The toothpaste brands that are going to win-out in the future are going to be those that demonstrate that they actually know pretty much everything there is to know about toothpaste. They will need to have R&D departments that create innovations that are genuinely based on improving dental care, rather than spurious innovations designed to create an excuse to make a new ad. They will need to be available to answer pretty much any question a consumer might have about what goes on in their mouths. They will need to have relationships with the dental hygiene profession that extends beyond buying endorsement. Or else they will just have to produce toothpaste 50% cheaper and abandon the entire category to utility and commoditisation.

The second way you can go here is to stand for something that is related (and relevant to) what it is the product actually does. This is an approach that, on the surface, appears easier or more attractive – especially if you have a boring product like toothpaste, or even a soft drink. It is frankly more fun and seems to open up many more creative opportunities. There is a danger here though, which is that because you attachment to the concept is less direct, your support for it has to be 100 per cent credible and committed. You can’t adopt a ‘rent-an-issue’ approach on a campaign-by-campaign basis. Probably the best example of an organisation that has done this is Red Bull. It doesn’t simply sponsor a Formula One Team, it has created a Formula One team. It doesn’t simply sponsor extreme sports events, it creates extreme sports events. And it then convenes its audience around these events and the product becomes merely the currency through which consumers buy association with these properties.

Despite its attractiveness, this is an approach fraught with difficulties. The requirement to demonstrate 100 per cent commitment to your associated properties can dilute your commitment to your product, ultimately weakening the connection between the two. Much as I am not a great fan of Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear, I did relish the way he once introduced Mark Weber as a bloke who worked for the marketing department of a large soft drinks company. But there again, is the soft drinks company simply the sales department of a Formula One Team? And if your product becomes seen simply as the ticket, rather than the event, it becomes subject to discount and loss of the commercial value associated with premium positioning.

Also, the requirement to establish relevance can narrow the playing field. Many products will struggle to find things that are at the same time sufficiently attractive to convene an audience around, yet also sufficiently relevant to justify the strength of connection and commitment required. Is there actually anything sufficiently interesting that a toothpaste brand could connect itself to in a sufficiently credible way?

Likewise there is a demand and supply problem. Within any product category, there are likely to be much fewer relevant issues than there are brands chasing them. One of the attractive features of old-style proposition-based marketing was that you could cram many propositions into a product category and then spend huge amounts of money dramatizing the minute differences between them all.

In the long term, the net effect of all of this is that the we are probably going to see the emergence on the one hand of a smaller number of global ‘rock star’ brands, whose products become merely the currency consumers use to pay for association with the things the brands stand for, with the majority of P&G type brands focusing, figuratively speaking, on the toothpaste. But since the toothpaste route appears the least attractive, we will see many failed attempts to become rock stars (as in life, so in marketing).

‘Clubify’ the product

Another way to convene an audience is to start to see consumers as participants. This provides a reason why they may want to actively ‘target’ a brand as distinct from being targeted by a brand. A brand becomes, in effect, a bit like a club that you join when you sign-up to a product category. Giff Gaff is a good example of a brand that is at the leading edge of starting do this. If you want to play tennis, you join a tennis club and if you want to do mobile, you join the Giff Gaff club. The key to this is the ability to have a much greater choice over what you get and the ability to join with others to create new options, albeit within the framework of clearly defined club / brand rules. Even if you, personally, don’t want to become hugely involved, you can gain reassurance from the fact that there are consumer members on the club committee so that you can have confidence that this is a brand / club that is being run with your interests at heart.

Of course, not all brands will be suitable for this approach. Poor old toothpaste brands again, may struggle – although there may be a higher order club opportunity that exists in health or dental hygiene, which suggests an opportunity for some brands to create clubs amongst themselves.

Amplification of consumer relationships / convening a mindset

This is an area which is closely connected to social media and the world of the individual. If you are operating in this world effectively, what you will be doing is creating relationships with consumers that are an order of magnitude more ‘engaging’ than those you were creating when you were just splattering them with generic content. But these relationships will be forged one at a time albeit in a drip-feed process that can continue 24/7, 365 days per year.

One of the great myths about social media is that by ‘engaging’ with consumers effectively in the space, this will automatically convert consumers into advocates of the brand who will then spread their experience far and wide through some process of amplified word-of-mouth. This doesn’t happen in the vast majority of cases. Social media simply makes word-of-mouth a bit more efficient. Of itself it doesn’t unleash a tidal wave of advocacy, mostly because once you have recommended something to a friend, they rarely have sufficient power or motivation to maintain the chain of recommendation (I ‘like’ this has a certain amount of clout (klout) but ‘I know somebody who likes this’ doesn’t). So, by sharing a recommendation using social media you can spread this to your friends more efficiently, but this then tends to be the end of the story, unless there is some added motivation or incentivisation mechanic.

This therefore presents an opportunity for traditional marketing to act as a catalyst. This doesn’t mean simply shouting about what it is consumers may be saying in social media, (or worse still trying to falsely dramatise the fact that there is some sort of consumer conversation going on in social media, as we are seeing in a number of ads currently), rather it involves drawing attention to the fact that the brand is available to talk to consumers in the social space. In such a way a brand can speed the process by which it creates for itself a reputation as being a brand that listens and responds to individual consumers, without having to rely on each individual consumer to have experienced this. Rather than focus on promoting the brand, you promote the way by which people can engage with the brand when, and if, they want to.  Inviting advocacy is probably more powerful (and more achievable) than actually creating it.

This is not so much about convening an audience at any one moment in time, but more about convening a mindset within an audience. It is a form of latent engagement that can be triggered when the consumer requires it (a bit like insurance).  Perhaps we should call this approach creating a brand insurance policy.


It has been become a familiar refrain that brands must have stories. Unfortunately, this has often been misinterpreted as meaning that brands have to become storytellers or have stories to tell. What really needs to happen is that brands themselves need to become stories: they need to encode themselves as a story. This is because while people will convene around a storyteller, this is only so that they can hear the story.

Becoming a story is as much about a way in which you think about yourself as it is about searching for some sort of plot line. Stories don’t have to necessarily be packed full of drama and entertainment, because their function is (and always has been) as much to explain as it is to entertain. A story is a way of explaining what you do, as well as indicating what it is you might do. A story is a strategy.

Hidden within almost all brands is the outline of a story, they have just fallen into disrepair, mostly because they couldn’t easily be fitted into a 30 second ad and the process of unearthing them could be the most important strategic process a marketing director could initiate.

These are all still relatively random and unstructured thoughts. But I think this is a territory that marketing people should be addressing, rather than obsessing about how to become a great ‘content brand’, or how to turn the brand into a publisher. After all, why would you do that when most publishers are going out of business? Why board a ship that is already taking on water?




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