Professional communicators have traditionally based a lot of their activity on capturing what I would call diverted eyeballs, putting content under the noses of an audience that only sees it because they were really looking for something else.
Most advertising works like this. You’re reading a story in a magazine and when you have to turn the page you get, not the continuation of your story, but a glossy full color photo of a bottle of rum. Or you may be watching October baseball and in trying to focus on whether that long fly ball clears the wall, you may or may not notice the name of the beer brand painted on the wall.
PR placement is a little more subtle but nonetheless based upon the reader sort of accidently falling upon the mention. Maybe that involves an inch or two of commentary embedded in a larger news story or a couple of sentences rewritten from a news release that fills a hole in a newspaper page.
The diverted eyeball strategy was justified by some audacious claims as to audience reach. That one graph short on an interior page of the local newspaper raised claims of an audience equivalent to the circulation of the newspaper. Score a TV placement? That means millions right? Because however many viewers Nielsen projects to have watched that station during that time period potentially saw the snippet of video or comment that you snuck in front of them.
Still working? Not so much. While the theory of diverted eyeball distribution made the migration from traditional media forms to online, it’s not quite the same. Because the claims of audience reach are based upon a concept of a passive news consumer casually taking in whatever is hoisted at him (or her). It’s about starting the day by paging through the newspaper at the breakfast table and ending it sitting down with the family to watch the evening news.
That’s not what today’s news consumer looks like. Paging through the morning paper now might be scrolling through headlines from 10 news sources on Twitter. Casually perusing what’s on the next page is less likely than searching directly for the information you want. So with more paths to get information and more devices to access it, the role of editor or gatekeeper has in many ways passed directly to the information consumer.
What that means for the communicator? You’re not going to be successful riding the coattails of someone else’s quality. It’s up to you to produce the content that captures an audience.
Author Ken Dowell is PR Newswire’s executive vice president of audience development & social media.