To Engage An Audience, Sing From The Chorus

Almost every speaker I work with at every conference I program asks me the same thing during their preparation: "Who is going to be in the audience?"

And for every show, the answer is the same--a mix of folks from agency media, agency management, client-side marketing, publishing, technology vendors, research companies, industry and financial analysts, and press. What changes from show to show are who these people actually are, and the percentage of total show attendance each group comprises.

Almost invariably, the response from the speaker is the same: "Hmph." Not because this isn't a valuable audience, but because it's such a diverse audience. You know the adage about how you can't please all the people all of the time; well, that's precisely what we expect of conference speakers. Or at least, each of us expects them to please us, which they translate (understandably, if unfairly) into a mandate to please everyone.

The advice I give to speakers caught in this quandary is, "Once you've got them listening, try to get them talking." In other words, if you can stimulate a discussion among your audience based on what you're presenting, you've done your job. You've engaged your audience at some level, and at the same time you've shifted the burden of sustaining this engagement from yourself onto the rest of the audience.



In fact, there is a movement afoot within the conference industry to promote the production of "Unconferences," where the people in the audience, not those on stage, are considered the "speakers," and whose conversations are catalyzed and moderated from the stage.

Following a conversation I had earlier this week with Dennis Smith, associate vice president of membership and loyalty at CNET Networks, it occurred to me that online publishers should regard their roles in the same way. Dennis is part of a product development group at CNET that rolls out community-based and other products horizontally across many CNET properties. I got the sense from talking to him that 'Engagement Czar' may be a better title for him, as his job is to increase both the quantity of CNET Network members, and the quality of their experience with the sites. He is paying particular attention to user reviews on the sites, and how they contribute to engagement.

One way to do this might be to ensure that as many members as possible read the columns and reviews of as many of CNET's editors as possible. After all, these are paid professionals whose job it is to hold and articulate opinions on the topics of greatest interest to the site's visitors. But Dennis is more interested in metrics such as page-turns per visit--and especially return visits--than he is in determining the popularity of individual editors, or even the pull of editors compared to that of community features.

In fact, when asked if it's more important that members return principally for editor opinions or peer reviews of products, he replied with conviction, "Not. One. Bit."

This sort of affinity agnosticism is an enlightened position for a publisher to take. Given the movement to me-media and more content choices than ever, it's also rapidly going to become the cost of doing business for online publishers. Niche and citizen publishers can find and exploit a strident editorial voice, and allow whoever finds its sound mellifluous to gather round. But larger publishers--like keynote speakers--will have to find ways of being a few more things to a few more people, and sometimes that will mean creating a site's voice from a chorus of editors and readers alike.

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