Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Finding your unexpected audience

When I first started working with clients on using social media as a communications tool, one woman listened to me talk about the benefits of blogging. I mentioned the ease with which you could expand your audience worldwide, and she stopped me. "No," she said. "I need to be able to turn that part off." Part? Off?  "The part where people all over can read this. I don't want someone in Sweden or Thailand randomly reading what I publish."

While that strong reaction's exceptional, I still see companies, small businesses and organizations ignoring or eyeing askance the unexpected audiences their social networking yields.  They're not your target audience, sometimes by a long shot. But might they offer  value and opportunity?

This New York Times article about online higher education courses offers one high-profile example:

M.I.T. officials like to tell about an unsolicited comment they received one day about the online course “Introduction to Solid State Chemistry.” “I learned a LOT from these lectures and the other course material,” the comment said. “Thank you for having it online.” The officials did a double take. It was from Bill Gates. (Really.)....Mr. Gates, the former Microsoft chairman, is not exactly M.I.T.’s target audience. Part of its original intent was to provide teachers with the raw materials to lead a course, especially in the outer reaches of the globe.
Turns out, however, that this unexpected audience--independent learners like Gates--makes up 43 percent of MIT's online course users, while just 9 percent are educators.  I'd argue that it would be hard to find a better-placed advocate who can help share that resource with teachers "in the outer reaches of the globe" than Bill Gates, whose interest can provide more than just a good story. 

To my mind, it all depends on what you do with that unexpected audience member who stumbles onto your online network or tweets or blog.  Are they just objects of curiosity? Footnotes? Believe-it-or-not stories?  Or are you listening to what they're telling you and using them to accomplish a goal--your original goal or a new one presented to you by your audience?  Every fan note or piece of feedback--whether it's from Gates or someone less well-known--gives you the chance to build that relationship, develop content and widen your circles strategically.  What if MIT asked the 43 percent of independent learners who like its online courses to help it boost its reach to teachers in far-flung locations?  They're already on board, and they may, given their interest, be able to expand that network. Worth exploring, certainly.
I've long been charmed with one science journalist's approach to the stumbled-over audience.  Carl Zimmer, author of The Loom blog, has a tangential audience that's grown like tumbleweed: People with science tattoos.  Zimmer looks at all things evolutionary, but even though they have science content, tattoos are a bit of a stretch in his topic area.  What started as a topic of mild curiosity for him has become very popular with scientists, tattoo parlors and tattoo aficionados of all kinds--and given Zimmer a big boost in traffic, a wider audience that includes people interested in science, and content for his blog as well as future products. Zimmer described the phenomenon and how it grew in a 2008 interview on this blog, and you can view the ever-changing Science Tattoo Emporium here.

But here's what's critical:  Where most people would have said, "Tattoos? I don't want traffic from people with tattoos--that's not my focus!", he saw opportunity, fun and recurring content with a built-in audience.  Just remember that the next time someone pops up with the audience equivalent of tattoos in your topic area.

In my own experience, a willingness to stay open to all comers and to explore connections has paid off in new clients and revenue, ideas and guest content for my blogs, and a database full of contacts and experts willing to help me publicize my services.    What will you find when you stumble over your unexpected audience? I'd love to collect your experiences in the comments--please share your insights.

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