Identifying audience needs online

This post introduces our approach to understanding audience needs; the three headed cerberus of content, functionality and dialogue. The full essay is a part of a report that has been written for Contagious, extracts of which can be downloaded for free here. Readers of the report have been asked to contribute examples of brands fulfilling these needs. Please take a read and let me know if you agree with the model – it’s admittedly very simple – and if you have any examples to support it.

Brands know what they want to achieve and what success looks like from their point of view. But are they as clear when it comes to know what they want to get out if their social media activity.

We think that there are some ways of simplifying and ordering the issues of social media. We have tried to do this by creating a clear framework for understanding what the social media audience needs are. This framework is written with the marketer in mind, not the online adept. In doing this we modestly hope that it will provide those of you who are practitioners with some useful reference points. In reality this doesn’t ask marketers to take much of a leap – we’re simply suggesting that brands readjust their thinking to use what is already best practice in their use of other channels. That readjustment is that rather than trying to understand what social media can do for brands; you refocus on understanding the needs of the audience.

A big broad sprawling audience

Social media is exactly that, social. It’s promiscuous and indiscriminate. It gets picked up by whomever is interested and only for that reason. This is a giant step away from the targeted world of broadcast media, and this needs to be reflected in the way we think of audiences. No longer ABC1’s, we need to think of the audience as a broader constituency. This audience is defined by their role, not by the Sunday supplement they read. Any one member of it can be a customer, a product reviewer, a reseller, a journalist, a shareholder, a legislator and a potential customer. An individual can be all of these at different times or at the same time.

A useful way of segmenting the audience

Faced with such an unruly audience we need some way of segmenting them. One of the commonly used delineations of this audience is by their behaviour. This is frequently segmented 1:9:90; dividing audiences into creators, commentators and consumers. Understanding these roles is important because they effect the way that social media spreads. Recent research (April 2007) by Charlene Li at Forrester throws a bit more of a sharply focused light on this murky area of segmentation. Her work identifies six different levels of participation of which are mutually exclusive. Li’s segments cover; Creators 13%, Critics 19%, Collectors 15%, Joiners 19%, Spectators 33% and Inactives 52%. What I like about it is that it acknowledges the multiple roles that each audience member can occupy.Charlene Li\'s Technographic\'s table

But for the sake of simplicity and consensus we’ll employ the more widely used segmentation of creator, contributor, and consumer but with the exception that we’re not ascribing any specific percentages to these behaviours. In this way we are acknowledging that multiple behaviours are possible, if not in fact very likely, in a single person.

Audience needs: the three headed Cerberus

As an initial step towards clarity we have started by taking the multi headed Hydra of audience needs and reduced it to a slightly more reasonable three headed Cerberus with three snapping needs for dialogue, content and functionality.

1. Dialogue

When a customer wants a dialogue with the brand its so they can understand better, exert some influence or so that they can be better understood. This dialogue can occur on the brand’s blog. It might just as likely occur on third party sites such as forums and specialist bloggers sites. And in some instances it will be on the consumers’ own blogs and social network sites. The subject of the conversation or dialogue might be a customer complaint. But it could also be a contribution to the NPD process; “Can you make it in green?” or “Can you increase your delivery area to include the Outer Hebrides?”. It is certainly possible that the dialogue might be around something that has been initiated by the brand such as the launch of a new product. However to be a dialogue it needs to have two sides. A successful dialogue will be a discussion around something that some segment of the audience is actively interested in. That interest needs to be strong enough that they want to have some back and forth exchange of information about it. Dialogue isn’t necessarily limited to text. An exchange of views can be conducted using video posts in the way that Jet Blue did to initiate and then continue a dialogue with Jet Blue’s customers. JetBlue, a budget airline in the US had a disastrous Valentine’s weekend that saw hundred’s of their passengers stranded in planes and  terminals. In response to the understandably furious customer backlash CEO Dave Neeleman got in front of a camera and recoded a message to Jet Blue’s customers. Neeleman used YouTube to make the video available and the audience responded by posting comments to the video. Neelemen continued the dialogue with another video posting. ( Regardless of the medium used to conduct the conversation, it has to have a back channel. We’ve all been in conversations when we weren’t allowed or able to answer back and we know how frustrating that is. Tried calling a customer ‘service’ line where you don’t actually reach a human? Then you know what I mean. That same frustration is true of online feedback.

2. Content

Broadly speaking a second audience need is for content, or in its drier form information. This might be prompted by a need to improve their understanding or experience of the company, its products and services. It might be a need to know more about its brand attributes; what it stands for. The resulting content can be quite staid information such as detailed product guides, industry white papers or how-to guides. It can be something that enhances the brand experience such as the recent examples of Sony’s BRAVIA brand videos that worked both as online content and in paid media as advertisements.

3. Functionality

The final snapping head is the audience’s need for functionality; the need to actually do something. They may need to enhance a product, gain access to some output of a service or to cooperate with other members of the brand’s audience. Typically this functionality has been delivered through a web site but increasingly this kind of utility is being delivered through widgets; small tools that can be downloaded to the desktop or embedded in a users site. At its most extreme it can be access to a brand’s data feed or an API (an interface for letting a software program communicate with another program; Google Maps being a widespread example. This access enables the audience to present that information in a new and useful way or even to create something completely new based on that data.

One of the features we have found of functionality is that it looks a lot like a product or a service. We think the main distinction is that if it is functionality that has been created for marketing purposes then it is provided to its target audience for free.

In subsequent posts I’ll be looking at what kinds of online behavior characterises each of the audience segments when they are fulfilling a need around either content, dialogue or functionality and what kinds of metrics can be attributed to that behavior.

4 responses to “Identifying audience needs online”

  1. Markus Hübner

    Excellent article! There is a tremendous demand for metrics in the social media environment and I am eager to see this topic evolving.

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