Don’t Confuse the Means to Publish With Having an Audience

It used to be easy to understand audience.

I remember as a kid reading an essay my father wrote in the late 1970s for the University of Cape Town’s journalism students on what it meant to be a newspaper reporter in that time and place. My dad was a career journalist in South Africa and in his intro he described how, as the paper’s news editor, he would tell his new hires to drive up the slopes of Table Mountain at twilight for a sweeping view of the city below. His reporters would see pretty much exactly what you are seeing now, in this enclosed image of Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

When you are looking down at the twinkling lights of all the houses and cars below you (my dad would say), know that you are looking at your audience. Those are the people for whom you write. You owe them your best work; you owe your readers the truth.

I’ve never forgotten that essay. It is of course an interesting snippet into the life of a journalist in South Africa during the height of apartheid. But it is also an interesting example of how, not so long ago, we actually had the ability to see what our audience looked like. I mean, literally: we could picture our readers.

Doing that today? Not so easy.

And so the question is: what does audience look like today? What is that picture in this global age of digital, hyper-social media? I have a few answers (maybe the subject of another post), but I think we now live in a world of such fractured and dispersed information that the answer will never be as easy as saying: drive to the top of the hill and look down on your city. Those are your readers.

I can tell you what audience is not. To whit: many of us confuse having the means to publish (technology) with having an audience (actual readers). They’re not the same thing; not by a long shot.

We’ve come a long way since the days of my father’s newsroom in which a select few (editors, reporters) determined which stories deserved our attention. And of course, as we all know, technology has turned that model on its head. (Boy, there’s an understatement.) The way the world followed the turmoil in the streets of Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey etc. over the last year has been decidedly different from the way the world followed South Africa’s tumultuous days of apartheid.

No question about that. But, in other “softer” arenas, such as marketing, the change has been dramatic as well. No longer do we need to wait for a newspaper editor (via a PR agent) to agree to assign the story that gets us the visibility we deserve. Now, we write the story and publish the story ourselves.

The rallying cry of marketers everywhere: we are all publishers, we are the media.

It can be so (if you provide value to your readers on their terms), however, along the way many of us have bought into assumptions that simply aren’t true. For example: if you build they will come. It was a rallying cry of the Web 1.0 world and the idea was, simply, that if you build a website you will get an audience.

For some people and businesses this was true to a degree, but it never really was true enough. For the rest, it wasn’t true at all. Building a website (or a blog) is not the same thing as building an audience. One is mostly a question of technology, the other: a question of people.

I say all of this because time and again we hear people say: I built a blog, but nobody reads it. What gives?

Well, yes. You built a blog. You didn’t build an audience.

I think this topic requires a series of posts, not just one. For now, I include, above, a slide I’ve been using lately in presentations – and it makes the point that when it comes to “online publishing” … or audience-building, or visibility … when it comes to all of things content marketers and media-empire-builders-in-the-making care about, there really are three things that deserve your attention and efforts.

Each presents its own challenges and, as such, should be considered separately – however online publishing works best at the intersection of all three. They are: 1. the means to publish (technology); 2. something to say (content); and 3. an audience of readers (visibility).

[There’s a certain irony in the fact that while lawyers are reputed for being behind the curve when it comes to technology, you actually stand to benefit greatly from this landscape, because you have something to say. Lawyers have a hard-earned, well-studied expertise — your content matters.]

We see people address these three needs in many different ways – and each can be (actually: are) the subject of numerous separate blog posts, on: SEO, relationship building, distribution, blogs versus websites, and so on. A while ago I wrote a piece asking: are we heading towards a post-blogging world? — and, pun-filled title aside, my point was that many people are opting to take advantage of platforms in which the audience already exists, and the means to publish is provided. The only missing element: content. (Really, that’s the business JD Supra is in — we provide technology and audience; our clients provide content.)

For now, just an over-arching point: gone are the days when your visibility was in the hands of some one else. Gone are the days of waiting for a news editor to decide that yours is the story to tell. However, when you set yourself up as a publisher know that your strategy requires time spent understanding and perfecting three important, connected elements: your means to publish, your audience, and your content. More specifics on that in future posts…