Surrogate Audiences and Lean Media

By | November 12, 2016

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Regardless of whether they use Lean Media methods or not, media pros frequently rely upon surrogate audiences to understand the market for new media.

Surrogate audiences are groups of people who like media that’s similar to what you are working on. Let’s say you are producing a new TV show, Rodent World, which explores the exciting lives of squirrels, mice, rabbits, and chipmunks. People who follow an existing program on another network called Extreme Rodents are a surrogate audience. An understanding of what makes them tick may help you and your team as you build out Rodent World.

Or, if you are developing a new blog about mutual funds, you could turn to the audience of a website that you used to work on that covered the stock market. There is an assumption that if people liked your previous work, then surely they (or people like them) will become fans of whatever new, similar work that you are developing now.

When media people say, “I understand audiences” or “I know what the public wants” they are actually referring to surrogate audiences, as opposed to an established audience of an existing work. There are even a small number of experienced media professionals—people on the caliber of filmmaker Steven Spielberg or reality television producer Mark Burnett—who are so in touch with surrogate audiences’ tastes and their own teams’ creative talents that they are able to crank out a seemingly nonstop string of hits over periods of many decades.

Music executive L.A. Reid, who helped produce and/or develop a long string of hit artists including TLC, Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Meghan Trainor, calls himself a “superconsumer” who knows and respects the tastes of the music-listening public. The Reids and Spielbergs of the world have a sixth sense for understanding the intangible elements that audiences desire, and are able to craft media that satisfies them. However, there are risks in making assumptions based on surrogate audiences, as we shall shortly see.

Why use surrogate audiences?

Surrogate audiences are an attractive alternative to using test audiences or market research. They remove a lot of guesswork about audience preferences and behavior. Often, surrogate audiences can illustrate trends or point the way to an audience hit.

Some readers may remember The Monkees, a mid-60s TV sitcom about a hapless Los Angeles pop band. The Monkees was a totally manufactured band, devised by TV executives and recruited by Hollywood talent scouts. The idea was inspired by a growing interest in rock music. The surrogate audience consisted of millions of young people who listened to easygoing pop bands such as The Beach Boys and Herman’s Hermits and laughed at the goofy Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night.

While the members of The Monkees could all play instruments, they never built up a grassroots following by playing clubs, touring, or self-recording singles for the radio. For the first two years they didn’t even write their own music—they simply played tunes that had been written for them by studio professionals.

The Hollywood entertainment executives who devised The Monkees took a gamble by assuming that the surrogate audience—fans of real mid-60s pop bands—would like the fake band presented on television. They were right. The tunes were catchy, the TV scripts were good, and the four actors clicked. Audiences loved them. The Monkees became such a sensation that the music eventually overshadowed the TV show, with recording and touring continuing after the TV series had ended.

Another example of surrogate audiences leading to success involves the craze for adult coloring books. It was a bizarre idea that enjoyed success in the 1960s as a mildly subversive pastime, then exploded once again in the early teens following the release of Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden and several other titles released by European publishers. Buyers liked the nostalgic and soothing themes, and publishers and illustrators in other countries took notice. Many were rewarded for their efforts, with tens or even hundreds of thousands units sold. The popularity of the adult coloring books category was cited as one of the reasons overall printed book sales experienced a recovery in the United States in 2015.

Making assumptions based on surrogate audiences can be tricky, though. Maybe it is difficult to market to a surrogate audience, because another media entity controls the audience. Or perhaps the new media does not resonate because the field is too crowded. For instance, news websites that have tried to mimic the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have found that audiences are hard to connect with because the leaders are well-established and there is too much free news available online.

Another scenario in which surrogate assumptions can backfire: Audiences don’t care for the new product because the intangible qualities that made the original media so great are not present. Hollywood is famous for producing sequels that don’t have the magic of the original (Jurassic Park III, anyone?) or are poor “me-too” clones that simply are not very special. Bands often worry about the “sophomore slump,” so-called because of the tendency of second albums failing to live up to audience expectations after an exceptional debut effort.

Then there is the problem of audiences moving on. Korean singer Psy scored a global hit with “Gangnam Style,” but his similarly catchy and goofy follow-up “Gentleman” couldn’t match the success of his earlier hit.

The craze for vampire-themed TV shows and books peaked around 2011 and faded as teen audiences turned to The Hunger Games and other dystopian fiction. Angry Birds was the hot mobile game of 2010, but a few years later it was impossible to get audiences excited about sequels, much less Angry Bird: The Movie which was released in the summer of 2016 and quickly disappeared from view.

Finally, a big problem with making assumptions based on surrogate audiences is it gives short shrift to the creative soul of the team. Producing media turns into an exercise of copying other ideas or returning to the same formula that worked the last time. Certainly there is an expectation of continuity in serial media or follow-up efforts. But trying to please a surrogate audiences often leads to a lackluster creative effort that is drab and uninspiring.

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