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Developing Proprietary Audience


If you were born before 1990, then chances are your view of marketing has been shaped by a system where a very small number of media outlets acted as gatekeepers to very large segments of the market, selling access to the highest bidder.


Today, I’d like you to consider an alternative marketing landscape, as we discuss what propriety audience development is and why it’s such a powerful tactic for your brand.


My objective today is to introduce total digital audience as the new metric for your brand and steer you in the right direction to develop it.


For marketers, audience refers to the people who your brand can communicate with at will. This isn’t a new concept. Marketers have always needed an audience. But, we never had to make or manage one ourselves.


What did we do instead? We rented. From companies who were experts in attracting and managing large audiences. These were the newspapers, radio stations, TV networks, magazine publishers, and email list providers.


These different companies used content to attract and nurture mass audiences. Then, they charged marketers huge sums to communicate with their audience in ridiculously tiny slivers of exposure, like one page in a magazine or 30 seconds of air time. This, in turn, gave rise to the advertising industry, which developed an expertise at communicating within those ridiculously tiny slots. It also led to a mentality among marketers that marketing communication was an infrequent activity to be carefully controlled and doled out in teaspoons.


This system has defined marketing thinking for the past century. But, it’s never been an ideal set-up for marketers or consumers. The high cost of mass media has been a huge barrier of entry to small brands. But, even large brands could only afford to communicate sparsely. And, of course, offline media limited brands to one-way communication.


Also, brands had to comply with the publication’s schedule and terms. And, many of these mass-media audiences tended to be general and unspecified, meaning that most of the people who saw your message had no use for it.


Most importantly, these audiences are non-proprietary – meaning competitors have equal access to them. With all these issues, you might wonder how the system remained in place so long. The media gatekeepers had three primary barriers of entry that were very effective:


First, they had the means of production, like big printing presses and TV studios.

Second, they had the means of distribution, like delivery trucks and radio towers.

And third, they had the expertise in creating and publishing targeted content that attracted and retained a certain demographic.


Today, all these traditional media channels are in steep decline. One of the main reasons has been the internet. It’s removed two of the three barriers to mass communication by turning both production and distribution into a commodity.


I mean anyone with a smartphone can create content and make it accessible to billions of people in a matter of seconds. This has eliminated the middleman and diluted the media monopoly.


This matters because awareness matters and engagement matters — but brands can’t have either if they don’t have an audience. For the first time, brands have an option to the dysfunctional and expensive audience rental system. Today, brands can build their own proprietary audience and communicate what they want, as much as they want, whenever they want.


Already we’re starting to see a correlation between audience size and category leadership. This may not be a causal relationship now, but it is likely to be as brands get better at developing and managing proprietary audiences. In other words, brands that are better able to build and manage online support could create a competitive advantage in the same way that brands have been able to gain an advantage with larger media budgets in the past.


An example of a brand that understands audience is Beyoncé.


In December of 2013, she released her fifth album, completely ignoring the way you’re supposed to sell music: No advance notice. No paid advertising in Billboard or Rolling Stone. No slowly releasing singles from the album. No PR circus with magazine and radio interviews or TV appearances. Beyoncé simply posted the cover of the album on Instagram with the caption “Surprise!” — that was the extent of her promotion effort, one word on Instagram.


A video posted by Beyoncé (@beyonce) on


That one word generated over 1.2 million Tweets in the first twelve hours alone — that’s 100,000 tweets an hour — to say nothing of the publicity generated on every other social platform, as well as in conventional media. The album sold over 800,000 copies at $16 a piece grossing over thirteen million dollars in just three days. It became the fastest selling album in iTunes history and shot to #1 on Billboard’s top 200.


This is significant because she made a clean break from the marketing convention of her category, circumventing not only paid media channels, but just about everyone else in the marketing food chain, and she produced a far better business result.


And, remember, Beyoncé was a latecomer to online networking sites. She set up her Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts in 2011. Yet, if you look at them and her website, you see a very well-managed platform that’s groomed an audience approaching 100 million people.


To compare, take the circulation of Rolling Stone Magazine in the US. It’s just 1.2 million. In fact, if you take the combined US readership of Rolling Stone, Billboard, People, Time, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Elle, they would still only amount to about 15% of her online audience. Beyoncé doesn’t need traditional media, at least not like she would have a decade ago. And neither do you.


With a much smaller investment than it takes to keep any one of those magazines running, brand Beyoncé is able to keep 100 million fans on tap allowing her to communicate what she wants, as much as she wants, whenever she wants. Her 2013 album release shows how a steady investment in running her online platform is paying rich dividends to her brand.


First of all, start measuring it: the combined number of people that either follow you on various social sites or have given you their email address. That’s your digital audience.


After that, grow that number selectively, ensuring that:

a) Your followers are exactly the people you want as customers; and,

b) They remain receptive to your message.

That’s the tricky part because it’s the one advantage that traditional media had that the internet was not able to give us: Competence at creating and publishing content that will attract and retain a specific target group. We all need to work on this and publishers, editors, and producers from traditional media are probably our best teachers.


So, to sum up, it used to be the brand with the biggest media budget that had the most power. Today, it’s the brand in your category with the biggest audience that’s likely to have the most power.


The internet may have broken the media monopoly by giving us the means to easily produce content and distribute it globally. But, what most marketers still lack is expertise in creating the right type of content to build and maintain an engaged audience.


That is marketing’s new frontier and a logical place to start if you want develop a well-targeted and engaged online audience.


Remember, use it or lose it. If you don’t put this to work within 48 hours, it will self destruct.


Good luck.






Like this post? You'll find more marketing insights in my new book: International Brand Strategy: A guide to achieving global brand growth, now available from booksellers globally. Order your copy here.