Understanding audiences on the Internet: the geographer and the ethnologist

(This is an English translation of a French post. Original here.)

(Ceci est une traduction d’un post en français. Original ici.)

When an organisation wishes to reach out to its audiences on the Internet, it faces many questions, critical ones. Even more so than with “conventional” communication, the online jungle requires the source of information to understand its environment. Who am I addressing? What are their codes? How do they see us? What do they expect from me? Who influences them?

The Internet therefore puts a new emphasis on understanding rather than acting; it places analysis at the very heart of the communication consultant’s role. No online PR strategy can do without this phase, which is often called “cartography” and enables an organisation to understand its “natural” online environment (which communities? On which subjects?). It’s the crucial Stage 1 of any PR strategy – it cannot be skipped even in the greatest of hurries.

This is where we are faced with several stakes. The Internet’s complexity, its almost endless surface, its complete decentralisation make it tempting to “automate” the analysis of audiences. Press a button to get the answer to the question: “Who are my audiences?” The financial imperative encourages this reflex: “There must be an engine that will tell me all this.”
And indeed, we need engines. This is the approach we could call geographic. It’s what a company like RTGI (note the G for geography) does with panache. You might know its impressive work on the European constitution referendum or its observatory of the presidential elections. The geographer maps out audiences. In the online jungle, he shows the paths. The map may be automated or hand-drawn according to specific needs (as i&e does it).

But to understand one’s environment, one must team up an ethnologist with the geographer. In the jungle, a map is not enough. You need a guide: the ethnologist, the one who studied the populations, their customs, and who will guide you in the field, speaking the language of the locals. This work of ethnology can only be conducted from the inside.

In my view, someone like Laurent Javault, a well-connected blogger who knows the various types of audiences and opinion-leaders, has the profile of a “blog ethnologist”. And when we tell our clients that to understand the web, they need to dive in (i.e. read blogs, read the comments, use an aggregator, read the history of Wikipedia entries, etc.), that’s exactly what we mean. It sounds basic, but we still repeat it: you cannot understand your audiences without studying them.

The duo of geographer and ethnologist gets us through the jungle. It would be wrong to think their fields are over-specialised. With the Internet more and more accessible, ethnology in particular is everyone’s business. PR consultants and press officers, who were the ethnologists of the conventional media, are increasingly becoming online ethnologists as well. No need to be a pure player or a geek to understand a particular online community: it’s enough to get started and participate. I see a kind of “de-expertisation” of online communication consulting, which has major implications for PR agencies. The Internet is increasingly everyone’s business and not the birthright of a lucky few who know it all. All thanks to the geographer and the ethnologist.

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