Building Audience Trust

caffeinating, calculating, computerating

This week I attended a talk hosted by the What's Going On Salon in Vancouver with transmedia creator Brent Friedman. It was a great discussion on how the modern audience is a "moving target", changing perhaps more than technology and business models are (and in fact driving the changes in technology and business models). Annalise Larson has a nice write-up of the major points here.

(I also randomly had the opportunity to see Caitlin Burns again and meet Adam Nash, who is awesome. Check out his music+transmedia project at Igor's Egg.)

The question was raised of what the ideal relationship is with an audience, and how you achieve that. The overwhelming answer that we discussed was building a genuine relationship based on trust. (Like any good marriage, as someone pointed out.) I think this can be broken down into a few steps.

1. Create compelling content This is the first, vital step: create something worthy of an audience. Besides being what you're drawing an audience to, your initial content is also sending a very specific message to that audience: you can trust me to produce good stuff, stuff worthy of your time.

2. Open the door If you have a compelling story and/or storyworld, your audience will create a community around it. Rather than let them do this on their own, open your doors, give them a space, and put yourself there. Interact with your audience as a member of the community to build a genuine relationship with them.

3. Listen Then, listen to the audience. Hear what they have to say about what you're doing. Take note of what they like and don't like, what they want and don't want. Trust them to engage with your product and be enthusiastic about it.

4. Adapt This doesn't mean do what the audience wants. Sometimes what an audience says they want is a bad thing. (A great example Adam brought up was Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica: the character's gender was changed to female in the remake, and audiences at first rose up against that; now Starbuck is a fan favourite character.) But you can extrapolate the kinds of things they want, and you may shift your focus a bit -- perhaps focusing more on a particularly liked character going forward (see: Kurt in Glee). But this is also where their trust comes back in -- they must trust your creative vision, and if you're going against what they say they want, they should trust that you'll take them somewhere good with it.

The Balance of Powers team puts this well in an interview with Emily Short:

It’s worth saying again that we’re not writing this as an interactive narrative in the classic sense – our storylines are plotted out and we’re not planning on asking for audience input directly – but we’ll be fascinated to hear what they’re enjoying, which characters they love or hate, and any suggestions they have for the future. ... [E]ven though we know where our story is going, we’re going to change our performance for the crowd. That could mean adding in new detail to answer questions they’re asking about the world, lingering a little longer on minor characters they find most interesting, or maybe even changing the mood of a scene because the audience reacted to an element in a way we weren’t expecting.

As Chuck Wendig points out, an audience usually doesn't know what they actually want. So by establishing that relationship with them, you can essentially say, "I hear you -- just wait. You won't regret it."

5. Bank And now ideally that trust comes full circle -- your audience trusts that you will provide great content and listen and engage with them, and so will be willing to pay on the promise of that trust.

So don't screw it up.