Hugh MacLeod argues that "public relations is getting social media all wrong," and paraphrases Stowe Boyd: "Please, please, please dont talk about audiences when you are theoretically promoting social media." Boyd is, in turn, paraphrasing Doc Searls. Well, now that you have the family tree, let me make my point.
Boyd offers some good advice:
"Drop the old speak: no more 'audience', no more third-party writing, no more 'wink, wink' complicity in totally false quotes and knowingly working with clients on spin instead of open dialogue. School your clients to do the right thing, not just wrap themselves in a bunch of psychobabble about social interaction with their 'communities' without actually adopting a new mindset."
I differ on only one point. It's a mistake to stop thinking about your audience, and eliminating the word from your vocabulary serves no purpose other than to appease the social media elite. The idea that corporate communications and marketing people are clueless because they use the word "audience" is a popular red herring among anti-traditional communications jihadists. While the dictionary definition of audience might imply one-way communications to a captive and passive group, the concept, properly applied, is a powerful one that is highly relevant in social media strategy. In the corporate world, segmentation allows a company to enable effective communications with its various audiences. These audiences include customers, prospects, shareholders, business partners, employees, developers, journalists, bloggers, securities analysts, industry analysts and other influential groups that the company needs to reach.
Each of these groups has different interests. Securities analysts, for example, are interested almost exclusively in the company's financial performance, and generally don't want to hear about product features or corporate social responsibility. Developers want to know about tools, and the availability of software updates and bug fixes.
By understanding their audience(s), bloggers can engage in more interesting and effective conversations. If I visit the blog of an expert in Service Oriented Architectures and read a post on his experience trying to replace a stolen Blackberry, that might be mildly interesting (OK, it isn't), but would have no value to me. I'd rather learn about the blogger's views on the role of open source in SOA adoption. Unless he is an exceptionally good writer, the blogger who writes about nothing but airports and stolen Blackberries is a narcissist, who has failed to consider his audience, readership, whatever. And I don't care how articulate, funny, or clever a blogger is. If he or she has nothing of interest to say to me, (a disregard for audience), then that blogger and the company are wasting their time and mine.
It's ultimately an argument over semantics. Stowe suggests we use the word "people" instead of audience, which is to me some kind of weird political correctness. And its generic and amorphous, and lead us away from an understanding of who were are trying to communicate with. (Stowe also suggests calling social media users "edgelings," a suggestion I simply can't respond to.)
So my advice is to keep using "audience" to describe a specific group that you want to reach with your communications. It's a useful and well understood term, and as long as you don't actually view your social media as one-way communications to a passive, monolithic audience, you'll be fine. If you do think of your audience this way, you'll wind up saying lame things like "most PR folk are still pretty clueless."
* Portions of this post appeared recently in a post on my personal blog.