Tending the Public Media Tribe

If you’re not reading Seth Godin, you’re not paying attention to the future of successful public media. Godin doesn’t address public media directly, but he does address issues of marketing and community and the economics of making money through the products or services a company provides in a new media world.

Godin talks a lot about tending to your “tribe” — that group of people that love your product/service and who share your values or perspectives and interests. If you’ve been in public radio or TV for any length of time, you know these folks. Most likely you’re already a member of this tribe yourself.

Recently Godin gave a talk at a music conference and his comments, while aimed at a music marketing audience, are applicable to all of us in public media — news, music, radio, TV, whatever — because the trends affecting the music business (disastrously) today are the same ones rewriting the rules for all media. And the rules for success in the next generation will be the same: serve your tribe; be indispensible; be the best.

Here are some highlights from Godin’s talk, pointed out by Gerd Leonhard and partially chosen by digitalwaveriding (the boldface highlights are mine):

if I asked you for the name and address of your 50,000 best customers, could you give it to me? Do you have any clue? [No?] Then what happens every day is you go to a singles bar and you walk up to the first person you meet and propose marriage and if that person won’t marry you, you walk down the bar to every single person until someone says “I do.” That’s a stupid way to get married. A better way to get married is to go on a date. If it goes well, go on another date. Wait to tell them on the third before you tell them you’re out on parole. Then you meet their parents, they me your parents, you get engage, you get married. Permission is the act of delivery. Anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them.

… The next thing is what I call the Seinfeld curve. The Seinfeld curve shows us Jerry’s life. If you like Jerry Seinfeld you can watch him on television, for free, in any city in the world two or three times a day. Or, you could pay $200 to go see him in Vegas. But there is no $4 option for Jerry Seinfeld. This is death. You can’t make any money in here. Because if you’re not scarce I’m not going to pay for it because I can get it for free. And one of the realities that the music industry is going to have to accept is this curve now exists for you. That for everybody under eighteen years old, it’s either free or it’s something I really want and I’m willing to pay for it. There is nothing in the center — it’s going away really fast.

… The next thing is this idea that people care very much about who is sitting next to them at the concert. They care very much about the secret handshake. They care very much about the tribal identification. “Oh you like them? I like them!”

… It’s really important to people to feel like they are part of that tribe, to feel that adrenaline. We are willing to pay money, we’re willing to go through huge hoops, trampled to death in Cincinnati if necessary, in order to be in the environment where we feel that’s going on.

… I want to argue that the next model is tribal management. That the next model is to say, what you do for a living is manage a tribe, many tribes, silos of tribes. That your job is to make the people in that tribe delighted to know each other and trust you to go find music for them.

… There is a lot of music I like. There is not so much music I love. They didn’t call the show, “I Like Lucy,” they called it “I Love Lucy.” And the reason is you only talk about stuff you love, you only spread stuff you love. You find a band you really love, you’re forcing the CD on other people, “You gotta hear this!” We gotta stop making music people like. There is an infinite amount of music people like. No one will ever go out of the way to hear, to pay for, music they like.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the future for public media companies will involve considerable “tribe management” and will involve a smaller audience than we have today, either locally or collectively — all media will have far more fragmented communities than in the past. Now is the time to identify who’s in and who’s out of your tribe and figure out how best to serve the community that gathers around public media content and values.

This may sound elitist or even fatalistic to the traditional mass media thinkers out there: “But I want the biggest audience possible!” Well, you can’t have it. Large audiences of mildly engaged viewers or listeners or readers are the old model. The new model requires deep and authentic engagement with that “tribe” of people. You can still invite everyone into the tribe, and you should. But in a world of infinite tribes, folks will naturally gravitate to the tribes that best serve their needs and interests (and they will have multiple tribes, of course).

Personally, I think this is an incredibly exciting time for public media folks that embrace this new approach. There’s new opportunity not only for sustainable businesses, but for truly meaningful, impactful and interactive work. The only problem is developing the courage to let mass media thinking fade over time, even though it’s been tremendously successful for the last 40 years.

3 thoughts on “Tending the Public Media Tribe

  1. This idea makes so much sense – a variant is find the 1,000 people who Love your station – not the 30,000 – the 1,000. If you can do this you will have created an energetic sun that will pull in more. (Hey Gravity!)

    The key I think is not to aim for a mass audience but to aim for the committed fans. I see this happening a bit at BPP and Twitter has helped in forming maybe the first 50 -100 fans.

    I think any station could develop a 1,000 fan person strategy – who are these people and what could we all do together that would knit the group and keep it together

  2. Any successful music act EVER had to abide by these terms if they wanted to really live on – look at how many acts that had a hit single and years later were broke and without a career – because they never catered to a loyal fan base. And look at acts like Pearl Jam that haven’t topped the “charts” in years – and still sell out every show they play.

  3. Rob — I think you’re absolutely right, and that’s the approach I’m taking in rethinking our strategies here in Anchorage. I do think the 1,000 number is totally arbitrary and depending on the scale of your operation, it may not be enough. Maybe we need 5,000 fans. Nevertheless, the core idea seems right for the 21st century — get that core, that tribe, that committed group, serve them well as a partner (not as a parent) and they will support you.

    For those of you out there that may not know of the “1,000 True Fans” idea that recently became a meme, you can read the source document from Kevin Kelly here…


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