Audiences no more

Today as I was working on the Request for Proposals for the project, a fundamental shift in mindset crystalized. When considering the people who use our website, I realized that we'd been calling them "audiences" for as long as I can remember, and something about that label just didn't fit with the types of things we're thinking about for the future of the site.

The term "audience" became part of the lingo as we evolved from traditional marketing to early iterations of the website. Asking who the target audience for a brochure, or brochure-ware, made good sense and certainly still applies when creating a distinct piece of content. It's always good to have an idea who you are talking to.

But that kind of thinking about audiences feels like we expect them to be passive, to just sit out there consuming what we put out. With social media, marketers and PR folks learned that the era of the one-way communication is long gone. Even if you are still reaching out to an audience, they'll be both superfans and hecklers in the crowd, ready to talk back.

The term audience also became confusing, because many of our users fall into more than one of the audience categories we had defined: some are both alumni and staff members, or staff members and current students, or administrators and parents. Talking about someone being part of multiple audiences just sounds weird, and doesn't help us think about why our users are on the site. Further complicating things, content creators often identified their target audience as everyone.

If there is one thing our user research has taught us, its that everyone on our site is there for a reason, carrying out some personal agenda. Maybe it's checking email, turning in a homework assignment, or looking for the fax number for the financial aid office.

Rather than thinking about our users as audience members, it makes more sense to think of them as actors - people actively engaged in doing something. Our site is more like the stage and props than the performance itself. Our users have the starring roles.

 So now, rather than thinking about our users as audience members, I'm going to consider the role they're playing.

What roles might this content matter to? A student trying to figure out her class schedule? A potential donor researching a program of interest? Both? To really stretch the metaphor, how can we help these heroes reach their goals?

It's a subtle shift, but I think the change in terminology reflects more than semantics. It's an acknowledgement that it's not about us, it's about our users. With this mindset, I think we'll be more successful in finding the ways technology can streamline their experience, and rethinking a website so that it supports the people who are using it for a reason.