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From Permission Marketing to Marketing in the Age of Subscribers, Fans and Followers

In Permission Marketing Seth Godin wrote: “The Internet is going to change marketing before it changes almost anything else and old marketing will die in its path.” Fifteen years later, Jeffrey Rohrs in his first book, Audience: Marketing in the Age of Subscribers, Fans & Followers, takes a new look at the changing nature of consumer relationships with brands through email, mobile, and social channels. He concludes that audiences are critical business assets. He notes that marketers should stop focusing solely on producing content for their numerous communication channels and start thinking about proprietary audience development instead. Jeff is a dynamic keynote speaker who has been featured in many leading marketing conferences around the world. Jeff took a few minutes off his busy schedule to share his thoughts with us.

Jeffrey Rohrs author of book, Audience: Marketing in the Age of Subscribers, Fans & Followers

Could you briefly explain the theory of proprietary audience development for us?

One of the great outcomes of the internet/ social/ mobile revolution is the ability for companies to go direct to consumers and build direct relationship with them through the myriad of channels that we have at our disposal, from email to Facebook to Twitter to YouTube to Pinterest to podcasting, and so forth. Each of these channels allows product and service providers to build direct audiences with their customers. Over the past four years as I have travelled the world researching how companies communicate with their subscribers, fans and followers, I have discovered that there is an awful lot of emphasis on content creation as content marketing has grown in adoption and influence.

However, there is not a companion growth in the professionalization of audience development. You have all these great channels where you can build direct audiences but there’s nobody in the marketing organization with a 360-degree view of all the audiences being built and what their engagement level is.

So out of that came this notion that if we’re going to have content marketing and we’re going embrace the fact that, on a certain level, we’re a media company as we produce content for audiences, then we also have to embrace the other responsibility that traditional media companies have internally. Think of it this way: A television network doesn’t just produce TV shows and hope people watch. They produce television shows and then they have an audience development department whose job is to advertise those shows, to engage the audience, and to get them coming back for more, time and time again. We do not currently have that department in our corporate marketing departments and that’s where proprietary audience development comes in. I think we’re going to see the rise of a new kind of professional role within marketing departments—people who look horizontally across all of these different channels, tactics, and devices to make sure that we have got an audience that is growing in in terms of size, engagement and value to our organization in order to create a competitive advantage over those folks that we compete with head to head who don’t have that kind of attention to detail when it comes to audience.

Or, putting it another way, publication is not distribution. Just publishing content does not guarantee an audience. I’m a firm believer in content marketing but when you’re putting 99% of your effort into content creation and only 1% into audience development, your scales are a little out of whack. To remain competitive, companies have got to bring these two components into alignment so that the content marketing people can see on a larger and more responsive audience over time.

When you refer to content marketing, are you talking across all platforms or are you primarily thinking about the social/ digital platforms?

I’m thinking about any platform where you’ve got audiences that can be built directly. Let’s look at YouTube. YouTube allows people to subscribe. Now, the difference between a publisher on YouTube who is actively seeking subscribers and one who is passively seeking their audience is pretty obvious and you begin to see a vast differentiation. The former has many more subscribers because every time they put out a video, they’ put up a button that says “subscribe” and they offer a call to action that encourages the viewer to press that button. In doing so, they are overtly building their audience for the next time they have a video to publish. That’s where the content marketer needs to work hand-to-glove with the audience development folks because it is mutually beneficial for generating channel-specific content and growing the channel’s audience.

The content marketer’s focus is to create the best, most magnetic, most valuable and relevant content for the type of prospects or audience that they’re seeking to acquire and retain. The audience development person’s job is to make sure that all of the channels that are relevant to your business have a growing group of engaged subscribers, fans and followers so that when new content is published it can be distributed to audiences who are readily engaged and want to hear and receive that content. Now, there have been a lot of companies that have grown audiences passively with no overt action. But inevitably in an environment where we’re all competing for a very, very limited resource—consumer attention—we have to be more overt and purposeful in building our audiences so that our content actually makes an impact. Otherwise, as I say in my presentation, content without an audience is just a tree falling in the forest but nobody hearing it.

What do you think about audience-building tools and do you have a favorite one?

Well it depends on what it is. You can measure audiences by email subscribers, by Facebook fans, by Twitter followers and there are now companies who will sell you email lists or fake followers but that’s not the type of audience you want because it’s really no audience at all but just numbers. You just need to go on Twitter and you can see that there are a lot of people who appear to have so many people following them, and you think “Wow! This person is really popular and really influential,” but when you run their followers through one of the third-party tools that let you know if they’re real or not, you begin to see that very few of these “followers” are genuine and any brand that is wanting to be taken seriously is looking for real consumers who want to stay connected with them not just numbers. The only real audience growth tool is therefore to be attentive to your existing and potential customers’ needs. Ask for the subscription, ask for the like, ask for the follow.

In my opinion, one of the first audiences a company should build are email subscribers because that channel still allows you direct access to the consumer through a medium that is accessible across desktop, mobile, and tablet. In fact, email is one the top three most used applications on the web, along with search and actual websites. Via email, you can control the cadence and can personalize the content. There’s a lot of flexibility there. What’s more, with email, you’re not dependent on a third-party algorithm deciding whether or not your content gets seen.

In addition, each email subscriber becomes a springboard for a lot of other things that you can do, for example inviting them to join a conversation that you have generated on your company’s Facebook page or ask them to share information on new products with their friends. Then they can take it to Twitter, to Instagram, and other spaces. I look at it from a standpoint of the best tools to grow audience are sound strategy and building techniques. Before the Internet traditional paid media was designed to generate a sale or to build a brand; today, we can also use it to build our audience.

In my presentations, I reference a lot of Super Bowl advertising because that’s the pinnacle of paid media and yet the vast majority of it never asks the consumer to do anything—it’s there to simply entertain. However, the companies that do it right really stand out. For example, Papa Johns sponsored the coin toss two or three years ago and they used the opportunity to tell their consumers, “Hey, go to our website and register for Papa Rewards then bet heads or tails. If you’re right, you’ll win a free pizza.” Hundreds of thousands of people did just that and Papa Johns gave away a lot of free pizzas. But they also walked away with a database of opted-in email subscribers who joined Papa Rewards.

I think we can sometimes get hung up on tools, widgets and so forth. However, what we should really be focusing on is well-executed great creative and strategy and that means that we have to break down the marketing-department silos that separate the email, social, branding, PR and communications divisions. We now need to think holistically and decide that if we’re going to spend X amount of dollars on paid media, what’s our primary objective and then what are the secondary objectives that we can also serve across the other channels? One of those should undoubtedly be building the audience.

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