Saturday, May 28, 2011

The real audience and the actual audience (a tribute to Barron Blackman)

barron in 1979, with ruth pritchard
so the last couple of weeks have been extremely challenging ones, as my team and i endeavored to stand up a new global integrated website.  it was a massive undertaking -- 15 million words, 1100 pages, ultimately to be rendered in 16 languages.  we were pulling much of this content from a constellation of 50+ hard-coded legacy sites, none of which shared any sort of common taxonomy or nav with any of the others.  it would be like going to a rag-tag orphanage and saying, "ok children... we're now going to change your hair color, eye color, facial structure, height, weight and body type, as well as what you say and how you speak and where you live and go to school, so that you appear to have the same parents and all these other kids appear to be your siblings."

anyone who's ever done this knows what a beast it is.  you have to try to drag in an enormous number of people, each of whom is typically invested in his/her unique environment and doesn't often understand how the whole is better than the sum of the parts.  sometimes they come willingly, sometimes kicking and screaming, and sometimes not at all.  we had some of each of these in our project.  to try to drive to a specified completion date, we pressed on without complete input, hoping that we were getting it right enough to start and we'd fix the rest on the fly.  one thing we didn't do, though, was to involve our distribution network, because we weren't intending to change any of the extranet tools they use to interact with the business.  it was supposed to be business-as-usual for them; our thought was that their input on the website itself would be represented by our internal group of testers as well as a number of external users we surveyed for content organization, site usability, intuitiveness of navigation, etc.

many years ago, i went to high school with a guy named barron blackman, who was one of the most brilliant, creative people in my circle of friends.  we stayed in touch throughout college and afterwards, during which time he formed Ate Trax, a small media production company, with his younger brother and another friend of ours.  Ate Trax -- and barron directly -- was responsible for some of the most creative B2B industrial work i've done in my career, including for square D company, where i worked in the early 1990s.  here's a clip of barron trying to help us market some important educational content that wasn't seeming to get noticed via traditional means:


the square d sales force, which was the target audience, ate this stuff up with a spoon and actually learned something from it ... but the company's executives didn't care for it, thinking it too funny for business purposes (i find it interesting that 20 years later, not much has changed in this vein, despite the huge popularity of humor as a marketing driver and educational tool).  barron had a way of describing this, which was to talk about the "real" audience and the "actual" audience.  the "real" audience is the people who are the target for what you're trying to communicate.  the "actual" audience is the people who will naysay or even kill your great ideas because they don't understand the "real" audience and believe themselves to be the target of your communications, even though they're not.

in the case of our website, these channel partners turned out to be the "actual" audience.  they'd been using the legacy constellation of sites for so long that the new site, because it was different, was automatically worse even though it fixed obvious problems.  for example, in the legacy constellation, additions of products or capabilities were simply tacked onto the bottom of lists because it was easier than trying to figure out how to insert them in the code to keep the list alphabetically organized.  in the new site, items appear in logical alpha order automatically.  but when one has neural pathways that say "in this site, F comes after R," that kind of change can be difficult. these folks are looking at products pasted squarely in the middle of the page and not seeing them.  this is typical in web updates, and usually these issues resolve themselves fairly quickly as users revisit the site and re-form those neural pathways to match the new nav.

the real audience is not having issues -- we know this because on the server we can see them moving about swiftly, downloading with abandon, apparently finding material with no issues.  the actual audience, on the other hand, wants us to make the new site look like the old site.  this is rather like saying we should build a new house with the same creaky boards and bad lighting of our old houses, which doesn't make much sense.  so we're busying ourselves with giving them tools to sort of guide their journey in the new house; links pages that say "ok, what you had in that cabinet before is here now" and "this new closet has all the stuff that was wadded up into a ball in that space under the stairs"  so they can find what they're looking for more easily.  i'm hoping it will work.

barron sadly took his life last week; he had just turned 51.  he'd been struggling with depression and a host of other issues for many years.  i'd not been in touch with him in some time, and i feel terrible about that.  but i'll always remember his comments about "the real audience and the actual audience."  his advice, as i recall, was to stay focused on the real audience and hope that the actual audience eventually comes around.

in keeping with my company's social media policy, it should be noted that this blog represents my personal views on marketing and communication, and not necessarily those of my employer.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for acknowledging Barron, there has been too little written about him.

Scott Pearson said...


Can I get more information on just what happened? I talked with Barron just before his birthday and it's been quite a shock.

Jeffrey "Scott" Pearson

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