What does it mean to “engage with an audience”? It’s a fundamental question for anyone who makes anything. Whether it’s a political party trying to win votes, Coke trying to sell drinks, an entrepreneur trying to sell an idea, or a theatre trying to sell tickets.
Whole industries thrive on trying to define, quantify and strategize engagement and building audience. It breaks down into three parts. Can you find an audience? Can you motivate it to respond in some desired way? Can you convince that audience to continue a relationship with you?
Finding an audience has never been easier or more difficult. Easier because there are so many ways to reach people directly and there is clearly an audience to be won – the average American now spends more than eleven hours a day online and consumes massive amounts of media. But also more difficult because the world is awash in cat videos vying for attention and it turns out it’s extraordinarily difficult to kick the cats to the curb.
Fundamentally, the measure of engagement has been (and largely continues to be) size. Reaching millions of people isn’t just sexier than reaching a few hundred or a few thousand. Hollywood is obsessed with box office not only because it keeps score on who is making money, but also because it signals ideas that are currently getting traction. On such scorekeeping are built the products (and ideas) of tomorrow. The market finds it easier to reward enterprises that speak to millions rather than to hundreds. Not because those ideas are better, but because they have attained attentional mass, even if for only 15 minutes. When attention passes, the world moves on to reward the next idea.
So keeping score is fundamental to our culture.
Scorekeeping = Measuring (But What?)
But our scorekeeping is broken. In the digitally connected world, our old definitions of mass-media-equals-success have become mangled. We measure audience size not just in millions, but now billions, and it’s obvious that raw volume doesn’t mean what it used to. Fifteen minutes of fame has become 15 seconds. As cultural signal, the flickering fickle attentions of a billion people don’t necessarily suggest anything other than a successfully-crafted impulse click, quickly displaced by the next click and the one after that. As economic reward, the accomplishment of finding the new mass audience doesn’t assure the riches (or fame) that formerly accompanied it.
Meanwhile, legacy culture producers struggle as their traditional audiences erode. The click-mass, after all, has to come from somewhere. In the arts, we rationalize smaller audiences (compared to pop culture) in many ways, but even in the arts, audience size is something of an obsession. In the age of the hyper-scaled-audience, size still matters – to philanthropists, to foundations, to ticket-buyers. The traditional culture investor class has largely moved from supporting ideas because they’re good to supporting ideas because they “work.” Great, but getting to definitions of what “working” looks like is probably more difficult than finding ways to measure it once you have.
Thus the rise in extravagant promises for Big Data, which purport to reveal insights about our behavior. Over the past few years the ability to collect data has evoked a frenzy to do so. It has also provoked the realization that the ability to collect more data doesn’t necessarily lead to better understanding. As intelligence experts at the NSA discovered with their mass-surveillance programs, more data can make it more difficult to figure out what’s important.
In the arts, where data collection has traditionally lagged behind business, it has become screamingly obvious that better understanding audience behavior through data is essential. The past few years have set off a flood of audience engagement experiments, powered by attempts to collect data about audience behavior. And yet, what “works” often doesn’t seem to be much clearer beyond what gets a bigger audience vis-a-vis something else. Is the ultimate goal of finding out what works merely to attract a bigger audience? Or is it something deeper? And can that even be measured?
I’m not sure that much of the arts field has even figured out what the point of engagement is let alone what to measure for. This isn’t just a failing of the arts sector. The business world is struggling with this too, only the profit imperative makes things a little clearer. What good does it do to have a million followers if you can’t do something with them that matters to you (like selling stuff)?
The Engagement Rabbit Hole
Google “engage audience” and you’ll get thousands of articles and websites dedicated to the art of trying to get people’s attention. Google itself has a whole division devoted to exploring engagement, advertising agencies build their businesses and client lists around engagement, and journalism has been endlessly iterating definitions of user engagement hierarchies. Audience-building in the business world is currently obsessed with mobile platforms and “micro-moments” with all the attendant data suggesting where real consumer attention can be snagged. On such micro-moments apparently, are successful sales made.
But if simply getting attention was the measure for larger success, the click-mass has devalued it. Journalists understand this well; they’ve been fighting for eyeballs for years, and advertisers have gotten wise to their clickbait games, leading to a precipitous fall in online ad rates. And that was before ad-blocking software became almost ubiquitous this fall. The collapse in value of attention capital is everywhere. Even developers who write apps report they can’t survive as the power curve crushes them.
The advent of the web suggested that definition of success in the mass-market might change. As the web carved out narrower and narrower niches, the Longtail suggested viability for alternative business models supporting blooming niches. And yes there are plenty of businesses that thrive on small, dedicated audiences. But the web has also hollowed out many of the economic models that rewarded institutional creativity, making it difficult for people like artists and journalists to make a living as they once did. Cultural institutions that once acted as gatekeepers in doling out rewards, are failing artists. A few years ago the viral song “All About the Bass” was streamed 178 million times. Kevin Kadish, the songwriter reported he earned $5,679 for all of that play.
“That was the real issue for us, like 1 million streams equals $90. For a song like ‘All About That Bass,’ that I wrote, which had 178 million streams. I mean $5,679? That’s my share. That’s as big a song as a songwriter can have in their career and No. 1 in 78 countries. But you’re making $5,600. How do you feed your family?”
There are thousands of examples like this, many chronicled in Scott Timberg’s recent book Culture Crash – The Killing of the Creative Class. Accounts of the dystopian effects of the internet on our culture and economy are multiplying.
Thus the urgency of figuring out ways not only to find audience but understanding what you want them to do once you’ve got them. This means defining engagement in more specific terms and understanding why you’re engaging.
The Norman Lear Center has a fascinating project going that attempts to measure impact and influence as it ripples through our culture. The Irvine Foundation has come up with a useful framework for thinking about kinds of engagement and strategies for building it. The Wallace Foundation is addressing audience-building research strategies and following up with case studies to illustrate real-world audience-building projects.
At ArtsJournal, last year we began a topic page to aggregate “audience” stories – stories that offer insights into the challenges of the modern culture as audience/artist relationships change. And a number of AJ bloggers are writing about engagement and audience-building, including Doug Borwick’s blog Engaging Matters, which is built around the question. In the coming weeks we’ll be expanding our focus on audience and creative engagement – it seems like a fundamental existential question.