"In the earlier days of digital content and social media," Sam Ford told me during this week's episode of Marketing Smarts, "a lot of us were focused on the ability everyone had to be a producer as the most transformative aspect of this media landscape."

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As it turned out, Sam went on to say, "A lot of people don't consider themselves producers. But a lot of us are playing the role of 'circulator.'"

"So," he continued, "on a daily basis, we are passing stuff along via email. We're posting things on Facebook; we are tweeting about things. And even though that seems very mundane and an everyday part of our existence, that collective effort is, perhaps, even more transformational."

Audience as Commodity

Sam has, along with co-authors Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, recently published a book, Spreadable Media, in which they go to great length to show that, while everyone believes we are living in a new era of participatory media, our notions of what constitutes an audience and what audiences actually do has not changed much since the broadcast era.

The failure to see the audience as an active participant in the creation of content—sometimes as circulator, sometimes as critic or appraiser, and sometimes as outright co-creator—expresses itself, as Sam sees it, in the tension between "the audience as an actual group of human beings and the audience as our business models understand them…which invariably translates into a quantitative representation of those people."

"So," he adds, "the audience becomes a commodity."

Quiet, Audience at Work!

The problem with that concept of the audience—which is still quite common in the publishing world as it struggles to deliver audiences to its advertisers—is that it is incredibly passive. The actual work of the audience goes unacknowledged.

"It's work to read," Sam told me, "It's work to watch television. The consumption of content takes effort."

"In the B2B world," he went on to say, "often it's actually part of the audience's professional work to engage with your marketing content. In that case, it's literally work to consume."

The strange thing is that the "consumption" we talk about when referring to content is actually its opposite. Rather than a destructive process—as when we consume food, for example—it serves both a preservative and a generative function. "Consumed" content doesn't go anywhere. It remains to be shared or passed along. Moreover, the act of consumption and sharing actually creates and confers value on the content consumed.

When Considering Your Audience: Think Different!

Thinking of your audience not as the passive recipient of your content or as an amorphous mass that needs to be herded to wherever your content resides, but rather as a living, breathing community that ultimately makes your content what it is... provides a framework for thinking differently about the content you create.

First, it should get you to think about your content in terms of the value it may provide the people who engage with it. What can your content do for them? What can they do with it? How will it fit into their projects, their agendas, their communities?

Second, this way of thinking, because it more accurately reflects the actually functioning of audiences in the world, should allow us to better serve our audiences and also allow us to be more effective as communicators.

Finally, and most intriguingly, it can get us to think very differently about marketing as a practice. 

Sam describes this last idea as a kind of epiphany that came to him as he was working through these concepts in the book.

"I eventually came to think about the notion of marketing not as a way to persuade or align audiences to the company's perspective," he said, "but [as a way] to be able to listen to the audience and find ways to move the company closer to the audience's wants and needs." 

He called this "a radically different notion of thinking about out work." 

I called it simply "refreshing."

If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Sam Ford, you may listen or download this week's episode above. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode! 

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