Monday, April 29, 2013

BIG’s Blog: We Need a New Word for “Audience”

I looked up the dictionary definition of the word “audience.” There were five definitions for this noun, but the closest one that fit how fundraisers think about the word was: “the persons reached by a book, radio or television broadcast.” Now, of course, missing from that definition was direct mail media, since most fundraisers don’t find it effective to: A) write a book, B) use radio, or C) use television.

For our entire adult lives we have been in the era of broadcast media, and, of course, direct mail is a variant of that. We decided how big an audience we could afford to reach and then mailed accordingly. For some organizations that was 5,000 pieces of mail, others 50,000 and still others 5 million.
But here is the key: our audience was always a finite number.
How do we make sense of the Internet? Theoretically, at any one moment there are a finite number of people on the Internet. When you begin to expand that moment to, for instance, how long your Web site is “on,” the number becomes all the people with access to the Internet … or, for all practical purposes, infinite.
So what is the practical aspect of this insight for fundraisers?
Let me use an example of two retailers you have probably heard of. The first is Land’s End, a Wisconsin-based catalogue mail-order company founded in 1968. Since they were a private company, we didn’t know what their gross sales were until, in the year 2000, they sold to Sears. In that year, they reported $1.2 billion in sales. So it took them 32 years to attain slightly over a billion dollars in sales. Very impressive.
I am certain that when Land’s End started, they mailed as many catalogues as they could afford and over the years as business grew, they mailed more and more. So each year, the number of catalogues … their audience … grew.  
Then there was another retailer by the name of that, ironically, was founded in the year 2000. Instead of printing a catalogue, however, they put up a Web site and opened business on the Internet. In less than 8 years, their sales were one billion dollars. Can you say “impressive on steroids?”
So here is my question: How big is Zappos’ audience?
Suddenly, the definition of “audience” that we thought we understood doesn’t work anymore.
The Internet changes everything, including the very definition of the concepts we thought we understood.
If you’re age 50+ and are running the fundraising operation of a nonprofit, and throughout your entire career have defined audience as finite, it is eye opening to find others that are hugely successful, just because they have changed from chasing “finite” to “infinite.”
Join us.
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