Using technology to really reach your audience – Part II

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So, Thursday day I blogged about Brian Reich’s thoughts on using technology to connect with your audience – with a foundation of clear, defined goals and a strategic vision of what you want to accomplish. Today I’m expanding a bit on those thoughts, with an emphasis on the user as content creator.

Off the Bus director Amanda Michel penned a piece Friday morning on the role of citizen journalists in today’s political/media environment. The post focused on Mayhill Fowler, an Off the Bus volunteer who wrote broke two of the biggest stories of the Democratic presidential campaign: Obama’s “bitter” comments and former Pres. Bill Clinton’s “scumbag” remarks.

Fowler defines herself as a citizen-journalist: an ordinary American armed with paper, pen, and a working Internet connection. Sometimes these people are armed with cameras and tape recorders, but that only makes them more effective: the reporting is backed up by audio or video. Michel argued that one form of journalism isn’t superior to another, but maintains that citizen journalists should be respected and taken seriously:

So, if the media, and the citizen media, actually show up and Bill starts talking, there’s no debate. Any journalist who overheard Clinton answer Mayhill’s question could have posted this news item. Anyone else could have trained his/her recorder, videocamera, or cellphone on him for those two minutes. And why shouldn’t they? It was a public event hosted by a former president and, for all practical purposes, EVERYTHING was on the record.

Michel’s piece reminded me of the old photographer’s rule: unless a person has a “reasonable” expectation of privacy, you have every “right” to photograph them. Based on this simple assumption, people walking on the streets, inside stadiums, or otherwise in a public place are fair game for photographers.

I think applying that standard to politicians and others “in the news” would almost work perfectly. Today, there’s no guarantee that what you’re saying in a public space won’t be broadcast on YouTube an hour later or repeated in a blog the next morning. If you’re out in public, your words and actions are not protected from publication.

What does this have to do with reaching your audience? Well, it’s hardly news that we’re moving beyond the realm of content creation being controlled by a few well-connected or entrenched individuals or companies. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter have changed the name of the game: social interaction online is where the future lies. New technology is going to make that even easier: Qik lets users live-stream video straight to the Web from their cell phones, while the new iPhone will have support for blogging applications like MovableType and WordPress.

We’ve already seen serious interaction occur on Twitter: two congressmen Thursday debated drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, all via Twitter. They traded jabs and tried to sway each other, but also answered direct questions from other users: not necessarily their constituents directly, but Americans who would be impacted by the legislation nonetheless.

Also this week, Matt Stoller shared his experiences discussing political organizing with high school students. According to Matt, the students don’t really use e-mail anymore: they communicate almost exclusively via Facebook or SMS.

This is a profound change in the way Americans communicate (something I alluded to in my review of Nixonland). If, in the future, the primary means of reaching young voters (or consumers, etc.) online is via a site designed around social networking, traditional media is doomed.

As reinforced by Clay Shirky’s “looking for the mouse” story, communication conducted solely through a social networking portal is a sign that newspapers and television have to fundamentally shift their content delivery if they’re going to stay alive. Being on the receiving end is no longer enough for these new media consumers.

So, what’s the key to reaching your audience in the digital age? Aside from the guidelines Reich outlines in his book, finding you audience where they are is imperative: two congressman on Twitter is hardly a milestone, and their constituents might not be there (yet), but these guys are still making news and debating public policy in an open forum, and they’ll be recognized for it.

And that’s the other angle: regardless of their motives, these congressman accepted and realized their debate would connect them with people who would spread the word. Embracing citizen journalism (whether on blogs, Facebook or Twitter) is going to be a huge boon for those who actually master it. Traditional media is not going to disappear immediately (though some argue it’s going to be soon), but it won’t be a place where younger people will find any of their information: not because it isn’t good information, but because they can’t respond or add to the discussion.