Seen it all before

What can you assume about your audience?

If you’re running a commercial, sending out a sales letter, making a presentation–what have they seen? What do they know?

A hundred years ago, when people went to see live music, the expectation was that they had never seen the work performed before, and they were unlikely to ever hear it again.

Forty years ago, it was assumed you were up to date on the current TV shows and the current commercials and the recent movies, but something from a decade earlier was too far in the past to refer to.

Now, if I give a presentation, I have to figure that some people in the audience have not only seen my five year old talk at TED, but they’ve seen EVERY talk that’s ever been giving at TED. Today, if you make an online video, you need to assume that some people have seen thousands or tens of thousands of online videos before you got there. Every TV show ever made is floating around somewhere. Cultural references don’t go away, they just get added to the stack.

Nokia now assumes that you’ve seen the iPhone. New photo sharing sites assume you’ve seen Flickr. Stephenie Meyer assumes you’ve read Harry Potter.

While it’s likely that some people in your audience have seen almost everything, it’s also quite likely that there’s nothing (nothing!) that everyone in your audience has seen. There are going to be people who don’t get this reference or that reference. There are certainly going to be people who, given the needle in a haystack culture we live in now, just haven’t seen the particular idea you’re riffing on.

Your audience isn’t as homogeneous as it used to be. That means you have a few choices:

1. Inquire. For a small group, or for important interactions, ask. Ask if they’ve been to your site or read your recent blog posts. Ask if they use this software or that software. Ask if they’ve seen Buckaroo Bonzai or not. Ask if this is the first time in your restaurant (or better yet, let your database tell you).

2. Assume. If you don’t ask, you’re going to have to guess. You can make it clear you’re assuming, which puts the burden on the unclued to keep up, or you can take a huge risk and just assume. This strategy works best for large groups, where hitting a home run with half the audience is probably worth the journey.

3. Punt. Don’t ask, don’t make thoughtful assumptions, just pretend we’re living in a three-channel, all-on-the-same-page universe. I think this is the default setting for most marketers, and quite a mistake.