Rule #1: Know Thy Audience

Knowing who your audience is - and their motivation for consuming your content - is the single biggest reason content creators do what they do. It is the reason they are compelled to create, to unleash the beast inside them and put the fruits of their labor on display.

OK, so why the grammar lesson above? Well, to understand where I'm going with this, it's important to grasp the concept of what the word audience really means. "The assembled spectators or listeners…" The appearance of the word assembled has a very intentional usage here. In this sense it means that the spectators have gathered not only for a common, particular purpose but because they expect that the thing they will be consuming (the content) will be worth the cost (time, money, etc.) in the end.

In my previous post, I discussed how to use Foursquare by tailoring what you share to the world to make it appealing to your audience. The same is true of any social media that you might use. Twitter and Facebook are undoubtedly the two most widely used social media platforms to date. Think about your audience on each of those services. Would you share 100% of the things you post on Facebook with your followers on Twitter? Probably not. Sometimes it has to do with privacy, other times you're sharing on Twitter because of the kinds of people that follow you and the common interests you share with them. That right there is the epitome of what I'm talking about when I say audience.

If you don't understand what I'm talking about, ask any business professional who has a Linkedin account if they would share their personal family photos on the service or if they would share content related to their industry. If you're asking someone who takes their business image seriously, I guarantee you they'll opt for content that is related to their industry. The reason for this is that they recognize who their audience on that service is and how they can maximize their image to enhance their professional network. If you don't believe me, ask the over 20 million people that found employment through social media platforms in 2011 alone. It's not a secret, it's being smart.

So how do you begin to understand your audience? Talk to them! The easiest way to learn about the people following you is to engage them in conversation regardless of the platform they're following you on. With this blog, for example, I stick to topics about technology (namely, how-to type articles) and good (and bad) design. I started out writing about anything that would interest me, but after a while I noticed that my most popular posts were those that taught people something and some of my most commented on posts are those that helped people solve a tech problem. I saw it was a winning formula - one that kept people coming back to my blog - and I stuck with it. When it comes to Twitter, I follow those that share a mutual interest in one thing or another and I engage them on it. Soon they're following me back and the chain starts to build. I get to know my audience better when I actively engage them in conversation and build on the initial connection. A very important chain reaction occurs here: By engaging my audience, I learn about them and what makes them tick and in doing so, it provides me a way to create virtually custom content for them. By creating that content, it builds trust and loyalty with my audience. That rapport builds upon itself and over time, my audience becomes more valuable to me - not as a monetary commodity but by becoming my muse.

Engagement Is the First Step

By knowing your audience, you can start to provide more relevant content based on their likes and dislikes. You'll know what is valuable to each of your audiences - and they're guaranteed not to be alike from network to network, although some overlap does occur - through the process I previously described. It all starts with engaging those that do initially follow you. You might not always get a response back, but it's nothing to be discouraged about. Not ever person you meet in your life will become a best friend, and likewise, not everyone who follows your content will want to engage with you. I get comments posted to my blog posts all the time. I always make an attempt to engage with the person leaving the comment, but often times there is no follow up on their end, and that's to be expected. Sometimes it's enough to leave a simple "you're welcome" in response to a thoughtful thank you comment on a post. Even if there is no immediate reaction from it, it tells those reading your posts that you cared enough to engage that person and that you create content with the audience in mind. Genuine conversations with the best exchanges of ideas are organic in nature. You can't force things to happen, but it comes with patience and determination.

Different Networks, Different Audiences

Just as there are different social networks - Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin - there are different audiences paired with them. If you were confused by my analogy earlier about the business professional's choice between work-related content and personal photos, let me put it another way. Would you wear t-shirts with suggestive sayings to work? You could, but don't expect to make CEO any time soon. Like it or not, most employers are fairly conservative when it comes to practices such as these (unless you're one of the lucky few to work at a startup or other some such situation). At work, we have a certain function to perform and a role to fill and we as humans tend to act, talk and perform as professionals while at the office. After hours, when we're with our friends and family, they see another side to us, a side that's more relaxed and unguarded.

The same type of behavior applies to the audiences that consume the content we produce, whether that content is a Facebook status update, a tweet or a Foursquare check-in. The same behavior responses that mold our physical behavior ultimately shape our mental behavior as well. You probably wouldn't use foul language when you talk to your mother, but you might when you talk to your friends. The behavior we exhibit is different depending on the audience.

The Bottom Line

In the end, knowing your audience is the single most important thing to creating consistent, meaningful and relevant content. If you don't care about the audience your message is intended for, it's probably not wise to share it with them. Smart content creators don't game the system - the take the time to understand their audience and they engage them. That way, everyone who has a role the relationship benefits.