How Brands Should Approach Audience Development

The concept of audience development started within the arts. Theater and other performing arts companies developed tactics they used to attract new ticket buyers, typically from demographics that did not attend these types of performances. This concept has been adopted by media companies as they sought to increase readership, and now by brands from all verticals who are seeking to adopt the editorial processes and traffic growth strategies of major online publications.

The Art Council of England developed a very good definition of audience development:

“The term Audience Development describes activity which is undertaken specifically to meet the needs of existing and potential audiences and to help arts [and cultural] organisations to develop on-going relationships with audiences. It can include aspects of marketing, commissioning, programming, education, customer care and distribution.”

When I first read this definition, the words “develop on-going relationships with audiences” struck me, because audience development in the context of the marketing field typically focuses on website traffic, not relationship building.

Audience development within the context of a media company traditionally focuses on traffic growth. Through a combination of tactics – paid media, content syndication, SEO, etc. – publications seek to drive as many visits as possible to their content. The more visits they get, the more ad revenue they generate. It makes sense for their business model.

While this makes sense for media companies given their business model, this does not make sense for most brands. Increased visits to a website can be good for brand recognition, but consumers typically don’t buy products or services after one read of a product page. The sales cycle is longer if you are trying to get someone to purchase a TV or life insurance than if you want someone to read about the latest developments in the budget debates in Congress.

Tactically, brands should adopt what media companies are doing to build their audience, but the their strategic goals need to focus on audience engagement and retention. A bounced visit to a media brand is still an ad impression. A bounced visit to a product company means the loss of a potential customer.

Don’t go for the short win with your audience development strategy, and don’t focus on just the amount of traffic you drive. Take a bigger picture approach and look at what level of engagement you are driving from each audience group you are targeting content to, and the success you are having in converting those individuals into customers, members, supporters, etc.