The death of the captive audience


One of my favorite amusements while traveling is perusing the always entertaining SkyMall magazine, the seat-back magazine on airplanes filled with stuff that boggles the mind. SkyMall is routinely filled with products that, at best, make you laugh and at worst, make you question the long-term viability of the human race. Who, after all, doesn’t want a wall-mounted stuffed squirrel?

What’s important about SkyMall isn’t its content, which is questionable at best, but the mechanism that it relies on: a captive audience. The airplane is one of the final bastions of captive audiences in the modern world. For that brief period of time when electronic devices are not permitted, there is an audience that can be addressed by SkyMall’s offering. At all other times in our daily lives, there is usually at least one other media option we can turn to if what’s in front of us isn’t compelling.

Think about how mobile has changed the nature of your audience. Standing in line at the grocery store? Pull out your phone and ignore the rack of tabloids. Waiting for the movie to start? Pull out your tablet and read, check email, or play some games. Even when doing fun things, we’re multi-screening. We watch television with a mobile device nearby. We play video games with a mobile device nearby. Think about how wearable computing is going to change that even more.

Except for those brief periods when electronic devices are not permitted (and even that may soon be going away), there is almost no such thing as a captive audience any longer. There is always another option if the content you’re providing isn’t rich enough. Your audience’s engagement, once nearly a lock, is now tenuous at best.

What does that do to your earned media strategy? What does that do to your media strategy in general? Do you now slice up your media so that it fits in the spaces of distraction, in the lapses of attention from main events? Or do you step up your media and content game to be a contender for those few slivers of fully dedicated attention? What does that do to your public relations strategy? After all, a hit in the New York Times could mean less if no one has the attention span to read the entire article.

Most of all, as marketers and media makers, we need to dispense with the idea that we ever have a captive audience. That creature is long gone, and will never return unless an era occurs in which mobile computing and mobile networking are not available. Design everything you do, from media hits to blog posts to YouTube videos with the idea that your audience is fleeting and transitory at best.

Oh, and pat yourself on the back for even reading to the end of this blog post. You have my sincere thanks for giving me even that much of your attention.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

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Posted on May 2, 2013 in Advertising, Marketing, Public Relations

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About the Author

Christopher S. Penn is an authority on digital marketing and marketing technology. A recognized thought leader, author, and speaker, he has shaped three key fields in the marketing industry: Google Analytics adoption, data-driven marketing and PR, and email marketing. Known for his high-octane, here’s how to get it done approach, his expertise benefits companies such as Citrix Systems, McDonald’s, GoDaddy, McKesson, and many others. His latest work, Leading Innovation, teaches organizations how to implement and scale innovative practices to direct change. Christopher is a highly-sought keynote speaker thanks to his energetic, informative talks. In 2015, he delivered insightful, innovative talks on all aspects of marketing and analytics at over 30 events to critical acclaim. He is a founding member of IBM’s Watson Analytics Predictioneers, co-founder of the groundbreaking PodCamp Conference, and co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee marketing podcast. Christopher is a Google Analytics Certified Professional and a Google AdWords Certified Professional. He is the author of over two dozen marketing books including bestsellers such as Marketing White Belt: Basics for the Digital Marketer, Marketing Red Belt: Connecting With Your Creative Mind, and Marketing Blue Belt: From Data Zero to Marketing Hero.
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