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July 15, 2009

Paul Cowan:The audience isn’t listening anymore

The managing director of FITCHLive  talks about the benefits of strategically letting your audience set the agenda for – or ‘author’ – your events to increase relevance, engagement and effectiveness.

Our assumptions about what constitutes an ‘audience’ need to change.

Equally, our notions of what being a communicator is and what the nature of messages should be, have to be redefined.

The reason is that audiences have stopped being audiences. They are beyond even being mere participants and are now seeking the outlet to author and to co-create with peers and companies alike.

Web start
The origins of this dynamic perhaps lie in the web.

The dynamic of individual as author is at the heart of Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, You Tube, et al, yet what provides the oxygen for these sites is not merely the outlet for expression, but the existence of a mass collaborative audience that creates, absorbs, shares and ‘owns’.

But this web expression is merely the basis for a much broader impact across all communication media.

Taking control
Television has been shaped to either accommodate the audience as the star, in the form of reality TV, or as the judge, in the form of celebrity talent contests.  But the desire for authorship and influence is too strong to be constrained by the boundaries for involvement that content producers define.

Consider the unlikely resurgence of Rick Astley as a pop idol through the phenomena of ‘Rick-Rolling’, an audience-driven underground campaign to hijack public music awards on a global basis, and place this 1980’s, one-hit wonder, at the top of every poll. The audience as author is flexing its muscles and enjoying a joke at the expense of those ‘in charge’ of content.

This subversive demonstration of power is at the heart of flash mobbing, where the virtual power of social networking meets the visceral, emotional charge of live performance. And this not merely a media phenomena. It impacts on all dimensions of society, from graffiti art to TV chef Jamie Oliver’s latest venture being a takeaway in which customers make their own food.

Brave move
So how do brands and corporate communicators best react to and harness this dynamic?

The first and most important thing is to recognise it for what it is. This is not merely a desire to interact or participate on terms that we set; this is the desire to effect and to author on the audience’s terms.

Audience authorship requires bravery from a brand communicator to cede control of message and to create platforms that invite free expression as the beginning of a collaborative dialogue.

Meaningful output
There can be brand agenda present in the form of a statement of intent, a direction, but this serves as a platform for participative input, with the space and freedom for expression.

But this must be more than simply the opportunity to interact and ‘have a say’. What defines the new spirit of audience authorship is meaningful output, a collaboration that yields a co-created product.

Brands need to have the confidence to allow the audience the room to input, the flexibility to work with it and the commitment to see it through to a real output that has meaning and influence.

On Stream
For the last two years, we have run a conference for the brightest and best digital talent in WPP called Stream. It has no agenda and is shaped entirely by its attendees, who are also its contributors. 

The contributions are all to be on subjects that the audience feels it’s peers will find interesting, spawning late-night cookie-making classes and topics such as ‘All I know about life, I learned from Cricket’ by Sir Martin Sorrell.

What emerges from Stream is diverse, passionate, authentic and ultimately enlightening, uplifting and inspirational. For WPP, in terms of engaging a critical group of top talent, the results are nothing short of alchemy.

The town hall
In another sphere, US politics has spawned the 21st century ‘town hall’ technique in soliciting real public involvement in policy making. Based on the theory of ‘the wisdom of crowds’: large groups of the public work with real data, interacting with government policy makers to shape policy together. There is no preset outcome, but what emerges is more often than not, cogent, reasoned and practical, political policy that’s truly co-created, not merely consulted upon as lip-service.

The key to success is embarking on communication with a clear strategic thread and rich stimulus to inspire, inform and engage, but to use this as a platform for engaging an audience collaboratively to create a shared output with the potential to go on and touch others. It is about having a communication approach with some blank space built into it for audience authorship, the flexibility to work with it and the commitment to take it somewhere.

Showing respect
In having the confidence to grant the opportunity for real authorship, brands reveal a true respect for their ‘audience’ as being something more than a ‘target’ and something more like a respected peer. What ensues is a predisposition that is all the more powerful because it is granted, not requested, and leads to an engagement that drives advocacy.

In these straightened times, where communication is a discretionary expenditure for brands and corporate motives are under greater scrutiny than ever before, grasping the spirit of audience authorship provides a more egalitarian relationship between brands and their key audiences that builds trust, connection and ultimately strategic effect.

Paul Cowan is the managing director of FITCHLive

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