Strategies for Building an Audience

About a year ago, I discussed different strategies for making video ads go viral. Since then, most agencies and brands have gone beyond the one-hit-wonder viral video craze and are now looking to create richer, deeper, online brand content experiences.

A lot has happened over the past year. New digital studios like Deca and Eqal have consistently put out great new original programs. Despite the economic turmoil, brands have become a lot less timid about partnering with content creators. And, above all, new distribution technologies and measurement companies are helping to make everything a bit more manageable.

But even with some small wins in the brand content space this past year, there’s still a lot to be figured out. While we may all have started to master how to expertly seed a video to get viral status, creating original Webisodic content and seeking out an audience requires a whole new level of expertise.

Last week, I spoke with Sarah Szalavitz, a cofounder of the small, but big-brained company, 7 Robot. Although it launched only this past year, Sarah and her partner Damien Somerset have worked with successful companies, like Next New Networks and Generate, and have built a credible expertise in an area that arguably could replace content as king: community and audience.

Christine Beardsell: Describe 7 Robot and what makes you different from other companies working in the content space right now.

Sarah Szalavitz: 7 Robot develops cross-platform user experiences optimized for participation, search, and community. Or, another way we like to put it: We transform storytelling into story sharing — building engagement into content creation.

We launched 7 Robot because we saw a gaping hole in the market; there was not a lack of content but instead a lack of an audience. Sure, people were watching TV shows online here and there, but the overwhelming majority of videos viewed on YouTube are still people watching their kids, their cars, or cats!

The media business is shifting radically. We believe that value is accrued in building community, instead of just intellectual property. Today it is not enough to tell a great story. The questions is: how are you going to get people to watch it, participate and share it, as well as measure its success? 7 Robot fills this need by taking advantage of social media tools and technologies to allow the audience to become part of the distribution or story sharing process — and in turn, helping to build its value.

While content creation once ended with delivery, today, it is only the beginning.

CB: Building an audience from scratch for a new Web show is not an easy task. Can you share some of your strategies?

SS: Yes, it’s very hard to build an audience from scratch. Even if the content is the best content ever, it takes commitment, passion, and a lot of work. It is essential to set long-term goals and grow your brand incrementally across the platforms where your audience gathers.

We advise our clients to be wherever their brand’s audience is; if they are Twittering, on Facebook, and on YouTube, you should be in all of those places too.

Then we conquer one platform at a time and focus on those with the most traffic first. YouTube is still one of the most important platforms, since it is where most people still watch video. Therefore, we are intimately involved with the features YouTube offers — ranging from thumbnail selection to annotation and AdWords. Each of these features offers opportunities to build an organic audience.

CB: Can you give me an example of a show you have successfully built an audience around?

SS: Our most successful story (and one we can contractually talk about) is ZapRoot. We have built a large and loyal cross-platform audience, which has made us one of the most successful green series on the Web — garnering over 20 million views.

With ZapRoot, we discovered early on that we created more value by focusing on building a user experience that included our community, rather than on producing perfect videos. As such, we spend more time and money on engaging with our community than we do on making the videos. In fact, the occasional imperfection allows the audience to participate and make the show better, which helps build loyalty and encourages sharing.

CB: What’s the most important advice you can give to creative marketers and brands that are developing brand content shows and trying to build audiences?

SS: For one, building an audience takes time and energy. Be committed to six months. And be prepared to spend as much, if not more, on building your audience as you do on producing your content. The adage, “build it an they will come” no longer holds true in a world of infinite choice and distraction.

Second, don’t build your own social network. If integrating into one is good enough for Radiohead, it’s probably good enough for you. And similarly, don’t build a video player! Chances are, Google has still done a better job than you could. Instead, spend that money on building your brand and community!

Lastly, the content monarchy is in decline. Content may have once been king, but today, community and audience reign supreme.

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