A simple question

When a brand decides they want to speak to an audience, they face a simple question: rent the audience or own the audience?

Renting an audience is when you do something to get attention.

Owning an audience is when people pay attention because of what you do.

Renting an Audience

Deciding whether to rent or to own isn’t a hard question. It doesn’t have a right answer. It doesn’t have a wrong answer. But most brands forget to even ask.

Most brands are accustomed to renting an audience with media, and owning an audience with product. This makes sense. A product company makes products. They don’t know how to make audiences, so they rent them.

A press release is renting an audience.

A mention in a publication or on TV is renting an audience.

Programmatic advertising is renting an audience.

You pay the rent with the cost of producing the press release, or talking to the reporter, or distributing the advertisement. That makes your relationship with the audience easy to understand: if you don’t pay your rent to a platform, that platform won’t give you an audience.

In other words, you have to do something to get attention. And, if you do enough somethings, then some of the audience will buy your product.

This is the business model of converting attention into revenue. And this is why brands try to capture rented audiences by publishing drip campaigns or sponsoring tweets or creating display ads that follow you around the web like an unattractive dog begging for treats. Given enough scale or enough of a qualified audience, some small percentage of people will click on your emails or tweets or ads.

It’s worth noting: this is a hard thing to do for a brand. This takes a lot of effort. The good news is, often times, it works.

But it’s also worth noting: the effort to make it work is the effort of optimization. It is the effort of reducing time and cost to acquire attention. Another way of explaining this is that the brand wants to expend the least amount of effort for the most amount of benefit. Such are the blessings of the internet: minimal effort, maximal scale.

Of course, if this were a relationship, the question would be how little do I need to care about you to make you care about me.

Owning an Audience

Owning an audience is when people pay attention because of what you do.

They pay attention to what you do because what you do gives them a thing (entertainment, information, a pleasant distraction, etc.), instead of asking them to give you a thing (time and money).

Owning is not “better” than renting. Owning is complementary to renting. But it’s important to realize that owning requires you to think differently about your audience, in the same way you consider more carefully a house you’ve purchased than an apartment you’ve leased.

You don’t pay much attention to the leased apartment; you’re just passing through. You pay a great deal of attention to the house you bought; the house will increase in value over time as long as its maintained.

Owning an audience—taking care of the house you’ve bought—takes many forms.

But ownership doesn’t mean you have lots of Twitter followers, or a large Facebook audience, or that your audience on those platforms is engaged. These things certainly help, but you can’t own attention on a platform that you rent.

And ownership doesn’t mean you have a big email list, and that your audience opens or clicks every time. That, too, helps. But you can’t own an email list in the same way that catalogs can’t own mailboxes.

And ownership doesn’t mean you have a large number of repeat visitors, though that can be a good proxy indicator.

In fact, owning an audience isn’t about a metric, or a platform, or a method.

Owning an audience is about a mindset.

Owning an audience is about taking ownership of the relationship.

Like any relationship, that means setting expectations, delivering on those promises, speaking to the other person about what they’re interested in and, whenever you can, delighting them. When the audience feels like you’re attentive — that is, when you pay attention instead of renting it — that moves the relationship away from the transactional and towards the mutually beneficial.

Anyway these are different business models

In general, brands that are accustomed to renting audiences don’t understand how to own them, and brands accustomed to owning audiences don’t know how to rent them.

They don’t understand because these are different business models. Those different business models are based on different incentives, which create different relationships with different types of audiences.

Publishers are incentivized to attract and flatter their target audience, so that the publisher may sell their audience’s attention to advertisers. But that competency means most publishers are bad at selling products; even if they have products to sell, they don’t have the staff that understands how to market those products — and the publisher’s audience, accustomed to being flattered, is now being asked to buy. Just because you’re reading about blue jeans doesn’t mean you want to buy blue jeans.

Brands are incentivized to attract and convert their target audience, so that the brand may sell its products. But that competency means most brands are bad at publishing; even if they have stories to tell, they don’t have the staff that understands how to market those stories — and the brand’s audience, accustomed to buying products, is now being asked to read. Just because you’re buying blue jeans doesn’t mean you want to read a story about blue jeans.

Of course, exceptions abound: Equinox’s Furthermore, UBS’s Unlimited World, Slack’s Several People Are Typing, etc. etc.

And, ultimately, it’s a straightforward proposition to own an audience like they do. There are a series of known steps.

But—and this is important—owning that audience requires understanding that you need to set different expectations.

You have to set those expectations internally, for understanding the value of that audience. The value of that audience is not how quickly they convert to a sale. The value of that audience is their attention to an idea.

And you have to set those expectations externally, for understanding how the audience should be treated.

Treat them well and they’ll return the favor.