For years, I've been preaching 'know your audience' to colleagues. When it came to designing campaigns, writing stories, or releasing videos, I was constantly banging on about the need to be clear on who your audience is. The thing is, my recent NFT jaunt is a masterclass in how I was doing it all wrong.
A while back I began to scratch the surface of this issue. In an article about the fact that communities aren't built on tactics, I skimmed around the struggles I had with the use of the term 'audience'. But now I'm realising we'd do better to give up on the term audience all together.
"Never use the word 'audience'. The very idea of a public, unless the poet is writing for money, seems wrong to me. Poets don't have an 'audience' . They're talking to a single person all the time." - Robert Graves
I stumbled upon this quote while drafting this article and it felt like a moment of serendipity. It captures everything I say below, yet I've somehow laboured over the point for several short paragraphs. Anyway, onwards...
Doing it right
Now, I'm not saying there's no point in identifying a target audience. What I am saying is that once your gut tells you where to start, you need to spend a heck of a long time embedding yourself into the communities to understand them. And honestly, I think I never fully faced up to this fact. I think most of us don't.
That's because while your gut points you to the starting line, you've got a long, often confusing journey ahead. And it takes a lot of hours just sitting and observing.
For much of that time, you're lost. You've no idea where you are, whether it's heading in the right direction, whether you'll ever understand what you are seeing. And that's a very difficult spot to be in, especially if you need to write a strategy document or put some numbers into Excel.
In recent weeks I've started to embed myself, somewhat, into a community. Now, I don't want to say which community yet because if I feel the prying eyes of respectable adults like your good self on me, I'll adjust my behaviour. But what I will say is this: I know nothing.
The good news is that realising you know nothing is actually empowering, because it's the moment I dropped my fixed ideas and started to step into new territories. It's the moment where I encounter deep empathy for the people I want to connect with.
Shallow empathy is a sort where you can imagine yourself in someone's shoes, but it doesn't imply care. Psychologist Paul Gilbert points out that empathy is what makes torture possible. If you don't empathise with the pain you could cause you could never even come up with the concept of torture. Cheerful thought, that...
Deep empathy however is about entering the mind space of another. It's the moment you start connecting experiences and feelings you feel to another. That's the moment you start discovering who a person really is.
This is why over the last three weeks I've spent hours and hours reading Twitter streams, Reddit posts, and Discord servers, often with a feeling of confusion. But as time slowly marches on and I begin to interact, I start learning, and deep empathy begins to take root. The avatars on screen are no longer 'target audience 1', they each are a person.
This probably sounds quite obvious to a lot of people, but I'm certain 99% of them wouldn't have truly put the work in to understand the people they are trying to reach. And there are two lessons which I think we must do when we try to learn about people, lessons which most of us simply don't (or can't due to external constraints) do.
Meditate on it
The first is that you need to enter the arena without direction, without structure. If you come to a community with your own map, you're already trying to impose your own reality onto a different world. It won't work and you'll get lost, or worse kicked out.
So when approaching this kind of work, you need to think of it more like meditation. You need to keep yourself open to just receive the information at first without prejudice, judgement, or direction. After a time things begin to become clearer.
This means you need time. I know it's difficult to sit in a job and just spend hours getting lost in Reddit, it doesn't much look like work because you haven't sent any emails. But it is work, and important work at that if you take it seriously.
But you have to care because if you don't you won't engage with the job properly. You'll do enough to get an acceptable surface reading at best.
The second lesson alludes to the principal-agent problem. In short: you need to do the leg work yourself.
I'm pretty lazy and I hoped I could get some help with engaging communities (aka searched for short cuts). I used freelancer websites and wanted assistance with reaching more people more quickly. But, it didn't work. The freelancers were not invested like I am. They had no skin in the game.
So, it's yet another reminder that I have to put in the hard yards myself, and it has been hard, with plenty of moments where I've wondered if I really should be getting myself into this.
But I've also started to be amazed by what people can do, what they are willing to contribute, and just how open to sharing and building together they are - if they feel truly understood.