Collaborators, Not Targets

Last summer, we posted on audiences a few times. First on how your audience is a lie, then about how to communicate when there is no audience. The idea behind those posts is that an audience is a passive idea. Someone that just sits there and waits for your message. Thanks to social media, there are fewer and fewer folks that we are trying to message that act that way.

As much influence I think I have, those posts didn’t really change anything. We still talk about target audiences. We still write fact sheets that ignore 95% of the people that might read them. We still talk at people.

Sarah Larcker, writing for Marketing:Health, had a great post recently called, “I Am Not Your ‘Target’,” that made me think of those posts and how far we still need to go to properly understand our publics and effectively communicate with them.

When we generalize to “patients,” we lose resolution. We lose the person inside that patient. And “sufferers?” No one is defined solely by his or her relationship with a disease.

Most polarizing of all is “target.” When we call our customers “targets,” do really we mean that? Do we mean to aim our forces at them and barrage them with messages? Do we expect this to be effective in a world where they can so easily ignore us – and form their own opinions of us?

In emergency management, we’ve undergone a similar change in how we understand our audience as well. They used to be victims. Something terrible happened and we came in and saved the day. But the current FEMA Administrator, Craig Fugate, changed what he called them a few years back. They were no longer “victims,” they were now “survivors.” Dealt a blow, they’ve persevered. They are now excellently placed to help out now, to be partners.

Just that change in how we understand our customers has engendered a change in how we interact with them. We now look to them to volunteer, to help out on scenes. They are a huge part of emergency response today, and they weren’t before.

We, as communicators, need to make a similar change. We need to change how we think about our audiences. That starts with changing what we call them. They are not target audiences; they are not targets to be shot at.

Given that our messages are part of a conversation today–a conversation that is dominated by what they say, not by what we say–they are our partners, our friends. Our collaborators. If they fail to pick up our messaging, it is because we failed to collaborate with them. If our messaging succeeds, it is because they have taken the seed we started with and have amplified it to success.

Much like Dr. King’s voice may have spurred action, it was what his collaborators did with that message that changed the world.