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Who Runs Audience Development for your Organization?

Three critical questions every website publisher must answer.

Who runs audience development for your organization? When a website publisher asks me to help them increase website traffic and build a loyal online audience, the first question I ask is, “Who runs audience development for your organization?” I get a wide variety of answers. At smaller independent publishers, the answer is often “I do.” At larger established publishers, the answer is often, “Our audience development director.” For those publishers with an answer, I’ve also been told it’s the editor, webmaster, chief marketing officer, marketing director, and almost every other job title inside the organization except the cat. As often as not, I get a blank stare. Perhaps that’s why they’re talking to me in the first place. We live in an age of multiplatform publishing where traditional legacy organizational structures simply don’t work. Innovation abounds, and for even successful website publishers, you’ll find many different answers to the above question. Nonetheless it’s a question that needs to be answered, and the answer needs to be compared with the best practices of successful website publishers.

One best practice is clear: If you want something done well, make it the only thing that someone does. After launching and running dozens of legacy and digital organizations, I’ve learned the hard way that giving people more than one priority often results in one or more of those priorities being done badly. If you want to increase website traffic, make that goal someone’s first priority, and if possible, their only priority.

Do you have the experience to run audience development?

If you have a dedicated team member running audience development, the next question is, “Do they have the experience to build the business processes necessary to achieve the goal?” As my colleague Bob Brady is fond of pointing out, we live in an age where established business processes are just being established. When Bob and I entered the publishing business some decades ago, the business processes for building an audience and distributing content successfully and cost-effectively had long been established. Successful publishers all had the same organizational structure, with the same business processes, and the same business goals. That’s not saying that everyone executed equally. That never happened. And there are always newcomers to the industry that simply have not learned the established business processes that others are using to succeed. But the situation we face today is much more complex: Best practices for creating, delivering, and marketing our content are in flux and evolving. We do have a clear set of best practices for audience development that revolve around using free content, organic search, and e-mail broadcasting to build and retain a robust online audience. But for most publishers, this system must be integrated into a larger publishing plan and organization. That’s the hard part.

Does your audience development person have the authority to do the job?

The final question of the critical three that must be answered involves affording and teamwork. Once it’s clear that someone is in charge of audience development and that they have the experience to build a business process that’s working for other successful publishers, they must have the authority to execute. Often times the audience development manager, online editor, or other team member with primary responsibility for audience development is buried in an organizational structure and prevented from doing their job by more senior members of the team who are focused on other priorities. This is not to say that those other team members are behaving badly. Sometimes they are behaving badly. Other times they’re simply struggling to do their own job, meet their goals, and cope with their own evolving work processes. Often they’re simply unaware of the differences between publishing content for audience development versus publishing content that sells magazines, books, videos and other premium information products. Website editing for audience development is different. The skills required to be an effective magazine editor, book editor, or video producer are not the skills necessary to be a successful audience development editor. In a nutshell, online audience development is about posting content that gets found, gets ranked by search engines, and stays on page one of the search engine results for a prolonged period of time. A post that accomplishes this feat is a blockbuster post that’s often responsible for generating as much as one or two percent of the website’s total traffic. Blockbuster posts accumulate audience over time and generate qualified website arrivals for months and often years. The creation, nurturing, and maintenance of these posts is not something that a magazine, book, or video editor knows how to do. It’s the heart and soul of website editing with a goal of building a large and stable audience of qualified users.

Answering these three audience development questions is critical to your success

If you intend to partner with search engines as your primary audience development strategy, there is an established set of business processes that you can use, refine, and customize for your audience. As one of my clients is fond of saying, “This is not the only audience development system that works, but it is a system and it does work.” Many online publishers rely on other audience development sources including television, paid search and banner advertising to build an online audience. Many larger publishers use both an organic marketing system, and one or more of the above in combination. I won’t tell you that organic marketing is the best way to build an audience. I will tell you that it’s cost-effective and long-lasting. And like most things in life, if you want to do it, you will need to do it well in order to succeed.

If you’re already committed to organic marketing as your primary audience development system, or you’re considering it as a new initiative for your organization, please join me in New York City for our Internet Marketing Intensive.

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