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By: Molly Donovan on July 1st, 2020

Rethinking Audience Development to Maximize Trust & Love

Lately, I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit poking around the Internet reading about audience development. 

It’s surprisingly difficult to find a succinct definition for this term that’s used by marketing departments across industries. Is “audience development” the work you do to attract a larger group of customers to your brand? Is it the cultivation and engagement of your existing customers? Is it a bit of both?

I have a hunch that too many marketing departments have thought of audience development simply as an exercise in getting as many people as possible to interact with their brands. But when we view it that way, we don’t think about audience development as effectively as we could. We tend to think about it in really big terms: develop a massive audience, so we can have a massive customer base, so we can close massive sales and generate massive revenues. 

Thinking about audience development that way fundamentally misunderstands what customers want — and, actually, what audience development is all about. When we think about audience development as a way to attract as many people as possible, we create an impersonal experience for everyone, which doesn’t give our core audience a good reason to stick around.

Paradoxically, marketers should start their audience development process by thinking smaller. To succeed at a large scale, marketers must first succeed at a smaller one: by personalizing the experience for key customers, who have the potential to become dedicated, engaged audience members. By first developing a more intimate relationship with fewer people, marketers will be better equipped to retain their existing customers and attract new ones.

Here’s what got me thinking about this. 

I found an article on Medium the other day that caught my attention. It’s essentially a case study in effective audience development, and it explores how the California Symphony grew its audience 70% in three years. 

Now, believe it or not, symphony orchestras haven’t exactly had the highest influx of new patrons in recent years. Generating — and, importantly, sustaining — audiences has been paramount to orchestras like the California Symphony. 

In order to survive, symphonies need to get more people to come to their concerts. So, most symphonies focus their audience development efforts on getting as many people in the door as possible. Makes sense, right?

Well, maybe not. It turns out that a symphony’s typical approach to audience development pummels attendees — all attendees — with emails, phone calls, and mail offers. And as it turns out, annoying people with outreach that doesn’t feel personal to them and their unique stage of interaction with the brand actually results in pretty low return rates. A full 90% of first-time symphony attendees never come back, and first-year subscribers average renewal rates of 50% or less.

These new patrons are precious beacons of hope for symphony orchestras: if cultivated correctly, they represent potential revenue streams for many years in the form of subscribers. But too many orchestras don’t personalize their outreach to these first-time attendees. With tunnel vision focused on growing their pipeline of subscribers, most orchestras inundate each attendee — whether first-time or fiftieth time — with outreach and donation requests. In hopes of developing the biggest audience possible, they fail to target their interactions specifically to new attendees and subscribers: a group with high potential if cultivated properly. And so, they ultimately lose these high-potential members of their audience.

To get — and keep — fresh blood, the California Symphony changed everything about its approach to audience development. Now here’s where our paradox comes in: to get more regular symphony subscribers, the California Symphony actually thought smaller — not bigger. 

With a new retention-focused strategy, the Symphony has a specific plan for each and every patron who comes through the door. Importantly, they don’t solicit a single donation before a patron becomes a second-year donor. In so doing, the Symphony purposefully limits its pipeline. But the team is stalwart in its avoidance of making the wrong ask at the wrong time. 

By creating personalized plans for patrons at different stages in their buying journeys rather than blanketing everyone with more requests to do more all the time, the California Symphony was ultimately able to grow its audience and donor base. 

And this got me thinking: what does this approach to audience development mean for marketers?

The Persona Problem

Traditionally, marketers have approached audience development in the same way most symphony orchestras have: they’ve considered it a volume game. Get more people in the door. Over time, brands have attempted to “hack” audience development by creating something with which just about every marketer is intimately familiar: the infamous persona.

When ascertaining how to create messaging for their target audience, marketing departments assemble fake profiles of “typical” customers. Often, they attempt to humanize these two-dimensional depictions by endowing their personas with names, stock photos, and colloquially-worded pain points. Who hasn’t met (or made) a slide deck featuring Peter from Procurement, Mary from Marketing, or Sam from Sales?

In my experience, personas often feel reductive and two-dimensional. Once the exercise is done and the slide deck is completed, they’re out of sight and out of mind when it comes to corporate messaging. In trying to understand the people who compose their audience, marketers create something that ends up feeling impersonal. 

Too often, marketing departments spend time and effort devising personas, then continue to play a volume game when it comes to audience development. They don’t try to figure out what messages and channels would appeal to Peter in a way that would be different from the messages and channels that would appeal to Sam. They just try to get as many Peters and Sams in the door as possible — often with the same type of outreach, the same collateral, and the same offered experiences. 

This is not great.

But! There’s a better way. In the past few years, smart companies have done what the California Symphony did: they’ve started to think about true audience development  — that is, how to develop a sustained relationship with a loyal audience rather than just attract more and more attention. Companies that do this well put together different paths and plans for different personas (much like the distinct plans the California Symphony created for each attendee), actually using the information they’ve discovered about their customers. 

One of the best brands in the world at doing this? You know it, you love it, you’ve probably spent an obscene amount of time interacting with it over the past few months: Netflix!

Be Like Netflix

CEO Reed Hastings has said, “We want Netflix to be the emotional connection brand. While our competitors like Amazon work on a ‘meet all needs’ strategy, we want to have a more focused strategy.” Netflix has predicated much of that strategy on exceptional audience development and an almost uncanny understanding of what each and every person wants to watch when they tune in. They’ve done this through extreme personalization. 

Consider this: have you ever accidentally clicked on a family member’s Netflix profile instead of your own when settling down for a long, chill evening of television? You might notice that their home screen looks different than yours. They see different show recommendations than you do — or perhaps you each see different images associated with the same show. 

This is intentional on Netflix’s part, and it’s key to their audience development brilliance. Netflix presents content that will most resonate with each individual, on a hyper-granular scale. That makes it easier to develop a personal relationship with each audience member, which makes retaining that customer easier. Establishing that trust and love also makes it more likely that each audience member will recommend Netflix to their network, further growing the Netflix audience. 

Now, a caveat: your brand is not Netflix. Our brand is not Netflix. The collective “we” are not worth billions of dollars, nor do we have insanely high volumes of data at our disposal. And, particularly if we are B2B companies, our total addressable market is much, much smaller than Netflix’s. 

But each of us can still apply some of the same principles to audience development as Netflix. 

First, Netflix uses data to understand users’ preferences, so it can give them the content they want while nudging them toward new experiences they might like. While you may not have access to Netflix-level data, you can use the data you do have to figure out what your customers are doing, so you can help give them what they actually want while showing them what they need. 

Second, Netflix makes it really easy for their customers to give feedback. The company changed its 5-star rating to a thumbs up/thumbs down model, because it was more frictionless for the customer. Be like Netflix. Make it easy for your customers to give you feedback — and then, of course, actually listen to it. 

Third, the personal experience Netflix creates incites people to spend time with them — lots, and lots, and lots of time. If we reframe our thinking of audience development from “get as many people in the door as possible” to “create experiences that encourage people to spend more time with you than they already have,” we will be better suited to forming the types of sustained relationships that translate to true trust and love. 

And ultimately, that’s our goal. As our audiences sift through more and more choices for how to spend their time and money, we need more than a transactional relationship with them. We need trusted relationships. We need to inspire love. We need to become among their favorite brands. And to become their favorite, we need to spend significant time with them. 

So when we think about audience development, let’s start there: quality time spent with our audience on a personal level. Let’s discard the volume game we’ve been playing for too long. Instead, let’s focus on creating the experiences that give our audiences no choice but to spend more time with us. 

 

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A somewhat accidental marketer, I’m first and foremost a writer. I’ve spent a decade working with global brands to craft on-target content and streamline complex ideas into clear (and even…exciting?!) language. Now, I get to spend every day immersed in content and strategy here, as Managing Editor of Marketing Showrunners, at my company, Molly Donovan Content & Communications. I’m thrilled to be a part of this community of eager next-generation marketers and marketing showrunners.

Reach out! molly@mshowrunners.com

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