Monday, October 25, 2010

Know Thy Audience

Daniel Lyons, in writing “Digg This: A Cautionary Tale for Web 2.0 Companies” at Newsweek this week, writes this gem:
The basic problem is that these new-media companies don’t really have customers; they have audiences. Starting a company like Digg is less like building a traditional tech company (think Apple or HP) and more like launching a TV show. And perhaps, like TV shows, these companies are ephemeral in nature. People flock in for a while, then get bored and move on.
So, really, new media are just like old media, except without the profits.

Because old media also have an audience, not customers. That audience pays a nonexistent (for broadcast TV) or minimal (50 cents an issue for the newspapers) entrance fee, and, for their investment of time and/or money, they get the product they want. Old media audiences – think the core, not the fringe – are rabidly dedicated to their product, and detest even the most minute change. I worked for a regional daily and the most common controversies that arose there were when the features editor tweaked the comics page. We learned this: The paper will not be able to kill “Alley Oop” until at least another local generation passes into the grave.

There were, of course, other problematic areas: a Democratic-leaning paper in a conservative-leaning city; a series of articles that cast the Boy Scouts of America (correctly) in a bad light.

But those things, media old and new media can recover from. If, however, any media’s audience finds someone else offering the same or similar product in a way that’s more attractive to their line of thinking, they will flee their old reliable for the new thing.

Part of this ephemeral nature may be, perhaps, that fame is fleeting. Take Chatroulette. (Given that overexposed male genitalia killed Chatroulette, consider this link educational but not necessarily something you’d read to your grandmother. Safe for work, but the writer is a libertine.)

The Digg (and, for the most part, old media) chapter may be that listening to your audience is the smart thing to do, even if you think your audience is overempowered, juvenile, and perhaps a bit too egotistical.

For Uncharted – you knew I was leading up to this – the challenge is to stay fresh and relevant and responsive to our audiences, and to be prepared with plans of action when the competition comes along. And that competition is the most ephemeral element of all, as Lyons quotes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as saying “the biggest competitor for us is someone we haven’t heard of yet.”

I spent part of my weekend looking over National Geographic Adventure, which we have considered as competition. Nat Geo certainly has name recognition, and has writers and photographers that are peerless as far as taking photos of nature and writing about nature.

You’d think an outfit like Uncharted – where amateur photographers and writers are invited to mix and mingle with professionals in providing information on where they’ve been and where others can go – would be a natural niche for Nat Geo to explore. But through National Geographic Adventure, they’re leaving the amateurs out of it, aside from buried suggested places where the unwashed like us can submit, say, hiking photos. They’re leaving a tremendous audience on the table. If they suddenly offered an Uncharted-like experience, we’d be bead because they beat us in the name recognition and actual money to spend on things categories. But they’re not. So we’re here.

And we can’t overlook the amateurs – because that’s what we all are. Sure, some of us have professional writing and photography experience, but not to the tune of National Geographic. We’re as Clay Shirky describes photo submitters to Flickr: We’re not necessarily the top dog, but we’re there. And we’re not going to scare away (at least I hope we’re not) the Psycho Milts out there.

So our competition isn’t Nat Geo Adventures. It’s somebody we don’t even know yet.

Side note: Psycho Milt probably has no idea how influential his Flickr presence is, given that he's become a rather potent Internet meme.

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