Stop Renting Someone Else’s Audience: 10 Steps for Building Your Own

Opinion: Community through content is the best insurance policy for a capricious digital world

Start building an audience that outlasts any algorithm
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The inevitable is here, and advertisers are finally coming around to a new reality of being held accountable by audiences. The history of advertising was built on following what audiences were paying attention to and working hard (or, spending “working” dollars) to infiltrate that attention. But in an age of infinite choice, infiltrating attention is unsustainable and harder than ever—and it’s something money can’t buy.

In order to find depth and sustainability online today, brands have no choice but to act like entertainment companies—creating content people want to pay attention to and consistently putting it on the platforms where their audience is interested in paying attention.

Even the phrase, “pay attention,” warrants (ahem) attention. What value are you creating for this audience? Is the content you’re about to spend budget on worthy of people “paying you back” for it with their attention? What could you do to flip the script so that you’re now in a position where they want to give you their attention and they’re excited to hear from you?

By flipping the media model on its head and investing in content that people actively seek out—and not on ads that interrupt—you’ll start to build a community (read: built-in audience) that eventually will evangelize for you.

Toy companies adopted this mindset quickly due to the unavoidable fact that their audience was never going to adopt the old media model. These companies, through a content-first, story-centric mindset, successfully flipped the media model, relying on owned content and not on rented media for long-term viability and engagement.

Case in point: The Lego Movie was ostensibly a two-hour commercial, but it grossed $500 million, and audiences are already frothing for the release of The Lego Movie 2.

It’s my opinion that toy companies are not uniquely suited to take this approach—they just got a head start. Here’s my take—my roadmap, if you will—on how organizations can adapt to the new necessity of becoming content-driven and start building an audience that outlasts any algorithm.

  1. Do some soul searching and set your intention: Move from a brand equity model to a brand DNA model. Zero in on what makes your company unique and let that be the North Star that guides your content plans. I ask businesses one simple question before they start working with our community on the Tongal platform: “If your brand had a show on Netflix, what would it be?”
  2. Change your M.O.: Flip the concentration of your efforts. Rather than focusing 90 percent on interrupting and 10 percent on entertaining, try to focus 90 percent on entertaining and informing, and only 10 percent on interrupting. Audiences expect you to meet them where they are, with content they want to pay attention to—not content that’s forced on them. Think back to your Netflix show and go from there.
  3. Borrow intellectual property and that IP’s audience to help build your own: Borrowing relevance is a valuable way to bring in new fans. Let’s go back to Lego. If you’ve seen The Toys That Made Us on Netflix, you learned about the two things that reignited Lego’s business: Developing its own IP with Bionicle; and borrowing IP and turning a mini-figure into Luke Skywalker, a move that gave it a new storytelling platform that audiences would pay attention to. But this isn’t an entirely new idea. In 1971, Post made a rookie cereal brand stand out by enlisting good old Fred Flintstone through a licensing deal. Focus on leveraging IP that gives you latitude to tell awesome stories to your target audience. The synergy of a licensing deal done right is invaluable.
  4. Spend against it: To go from zero to “audience,” you’ll need to invest at first. But now, you’re investing in content with a built-in fan base, not an ad. And while you’re at it, prioritize public relations and editorial coverage of that content.
  5. Repeat and begin to acquire your own audience: When fans start to actively seek out your content, you know you’re onto something.
  6. Leverage partnerships: Partner with sports stars, influencers and celebrities, but focus on having them drive their fans to you. What you don’t want to do is simply “rent their audience” in a cookie-cutter endorsement or influencer deal. You want them to point back to you, where you’re creating value through content in an ongoing way.
  7. Build a repeatable way to engage your superfans: “By the fans, for the fans” is the mantra at Tongal, and here’s why: Joy’s Law tells us, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” The most efficient companies know this and use it to their advantage. If NASA is comfortable leveraging open systems to engage people around the world and crowdsource solutions to some of its biggest challenges, you should be, too. And who better to engage than your existing, passionate community of fans?
  8. Research who your audience is and tell stories that matter to them: This goes back to creating content people actually want to watch.
  9. Build and invest in your own IP: When it comes to building a lasting franchise, IP is your playground for growth. Extend your IP across screens and give your audience the 360-experience it deserves. From there, let your fans get creative with it and empower them to extend your narrative (read: evangelize) for you. That’s fandom.
  10. Don’t quit: This is a way of life, not a campaign.

The inevitable is here. The reality of audiences is changing. But, if anything, I see it as an invitation to get more creative. The prize? Owned content, IP and audience—not the rented kind. Because not only is renting an audience (and its attention) expensive, it’s not working. Game on.

James DeJulio is co-founder and president of crowdsourced studio Tongal.