Audience engagement – three approaches

That annoyingly important variable of any project – the audience

A quick note on a topic we’ve been addressing in several projects of late – that of audience engagement (I’ve written about it before, here, here and here amongst other posts). These might be obvious points to people, but I wanted to share them as they’ve come to the fore time and again on projects we’re working on. For instance, a couple of years ago we produced the music series ”The Mill Sessions”, where one part of the setup was an experiment in, namely, audience engagement. More precisely, is it possible to build an audience from scratch, and of so, how long does it take? Short answer – yes, and longer than expected.

Since then we’ve had other assignments where the engagement of the audience has been a very desired part of the projects. There are as many different approaches as there are projects, but here are three major lines of approach:

1. Use money to get the audience engaged. This is perhaps the most traditional (and still quite effective) way of engaging an audience. Put money into promotional campaigns to get the attention of the audience. Put more money into the production of campaign material to get those viral videos (hopefully) going. Put even more money into prizes and rewards for the audience for sharing and engaging. The pro:s are apparent – you will with high probability see a sharp increase in engagement, sharing and audience size. The con:s are even more apparent – when your money run out, unless your content is engaging in the extreme, you’ll not keep the audience interested for very long.  They’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of ”service”, and if that’s no longer on the menu, the impression – conscious or subconscious – will be that of a ”lesser” campaign than before.

2. Use the influence of major influencers in one way or another. Use the people with 3 million Twitter followers, with gigantic Instagram or Facebook following, with high engagement numbers etc, as your ambassadors. They’ll be able to reach a lot of people with your message and your content immediately and spark conversations and engagement. The pro:s are, again, quite clear – you will have a figurehead (or –heads) for your campaign, you will have someone the audience would want to be associated with, and if you have the luxury of choosing whom to work with, you can reach the exact target audience you want to reach. The con:s are also pretty clear – unless it is an influencer who chooses to engage with your project for personal reasons, you cannot expect them to tag along for the long run. And when they leave your project for the next one, chances are many of their recruits will also. Unless you’ve managed to create something appealing enough for people to want to stay, of course. Depending on the type of engagement the influencer has, you might also need to budget a fair amount for the use of their service.

This approach was the one we aimed for with The Mill Sessions; as we featured some of the best artists in Finland (and their record companies) on the show, we wanted to use their following to gain awareness of the project on a grand scale in a short period of time. Even though we had comprehensive guidelines for everyone involved regarding desired social media and blog activity, in reality it all came down to the artists themselves and their representatives and how they used different media channels. This again is a clear indication of another lesson we learned – carefully analyze all the different forces involved and mould strategies so they support and are supported by the inherent characteristics and behavioral patterns of these forces. Basically, don’t try to force stuff to happen that couldn’t logically happen otherwise. So what we in the end concentrated on was…

3. Aim for awareness and engagement in the long run. This requires a number of things – a longevity of the project that will allow for people to find it and engage with it (which includes the need for a story arch that will support such a longevity), a certain amount of patience on the part of the stakeholders in the project and an agile approach that will let the creators latch on to different spontaneous events and occurances that will increase the exposure and engagement-worthyness of the project. Here, patience (and funding) might be the variables most difficult to attain. Also, while there exists a definite need to be prepared to go along with spontaneous incidents, there must also be a strict discipline when it comes to the tone and feel of the story and the storyworld, so that new content and new interactions do not conflict with the general story world and story arch.

Naturally, the more partners you have involved in a project, the more difficult it is to keep everything in line with the original strategy. What is important is to have guideposts in place with indentifiable – and realistic – goals, so that everyone can see if things are going according to plan or not; also have contingency plans in place in case things are not going according to plan, contingecy plans that everyone involved have signed off on, so that there is a consensus regarding what is to be done, when and by whom.

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5 thoughts on “Audience engagement – three approaches

  1. Interesting article, Simon.

    How would you select who to engage as an ambassador? How do you find the people with the largest reach/audience? How do entice them to get involved?

    • Hi Samantha, thanks. It all, again, depends on your project. Sometimes – as with our The Mill Sessions – the ambassadors are a natural part of the narrative, i.e. the artists on the show. Sometimes you just have to take what you can get. And sometimes – especially true for projects in the (very) long run – you build your own ambassadors. Ideally, of course, whomever you approach should have a connection to the issue you’re approaching, the underlying theme or the basic need your project is addressing. In this way it is more likely you can engage them as ambassadors in a longer run.

      How to entice them? In a way it’s not much different from trying to get an audience to engage. These ambassadors also have needs – albeit different or on a different scale. The need to feel wanted. The need to be seen as a leading figure, as someone “on top of things”. The need to feel good about themselves by engaging in a worthy cause. What you’ve got to do is respond to these needs, and back that response up with great content.

  2. I’ve just started to try to incorporate audience participation into a project, so this was a timely post for me. I’m trying the first approach by giving away prizes for fan-contributed content. I’m glad you mentioned taking a long-term view because it’s hard to convince people to contribute to a project initially. Thanks.

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