competitionOn my way home from work yesterday, I was listening to NPR, and heard an interview with Debra Lee, the CEO of BET (aka Black Entertainment Television).

At one point, she was asked who she defines as her competition, and she said (I quote):

“Everyone. Anyone that’s fighting for eyeballs, whether it’s a cable network, video game, movie theater — I define my competition as any entertainment outlet that’s fighting for eyeballs.”

Image: dietadeporte via Flickr, CC 2.0

Earlier in the interview, when asked about BET’s role, she said (I quote again):

“BET’s been around for 32 years, and our role today is the same as it’s always been, is to provide a platform for African American programming and news and information for our audience. Even with the addition of all the new channels and cable and satellite and digital, there is [sic] still very few outlets that target African Americans.”

To me, these two answers seem contradictory.

If BET’s role is to provide a platform for African American programming, news and info, then isn’t its competition anyone who’s fighting for those eyeballs, as opposed to any eyeballs?

At the same time, I get the “everyone’s my competition” argument. It’s one we hear, if not overtly, then covertly, all the time.

It’s one we see all the time, from organizations, outlets, channels, brands, even blogs, that are trying to be everything to and for everyone, because they are so scared of their shrinking audience, the increasing competition, and have no idea how to cut through the clutter.

It just doesn’t sit right with me, though. To me, if everyone’s your competition, then everyone’s your audience.

And if everyone’s your audience, then no one’s your audience. I didn’t come up with that line, as you know, but I subscribe to it.

And if you don’t know who your audience is, you won’t be able to identify your competition and figure out ways to get ahead, let alone work with them (which can be an excellent strategy for building your business).

Who do I need… to do what?

When clients come to us and say, “Help me do X,” one of the first things we do – at least, I do, and I’m pretty sure my colleagues and friends who are smart marketers do the same – is ask, “OK. You want to do X. Now tell me, who are the people you need to help you do X?”

That’s paraphrasing it casually, of course. And there are many other questions I ask as well, quite a few of which are the basic questions I’d ask when trying to figure out a measurement framework, because to me, strategy and measurement go hand in hand.

But one of the most important questions we need answered – or help from the client so that we can figure out the answer together – is who the audience is, or how they prioritize their various audiences, so that we can figure out what kinds of actions we hope they will/want them to take … and then put in place what we think will be the most effective strategy and tactics to achieve the desired outcomes.

If “everyone” is your audience, how can you do this?

Yes, the Internet makes information accessible to everyone (well, everyone online, but for the purpose of this post, it’s probably ok to generalize this specific “everyone”).

But that doesn’t mean “everyone” is going to impact your brand, or your business, in the same way. That’s why people are going crazy trying to figure out who their “influencers” are and there’s so much poppycock around it.

Ms. Lee is the CEO of a huge company, and has much, much more money than I do, so she clearly knows a lot that I don’t… and I imagine she said what she did based on years of experience, market research, etc. So maybe “everyone” really is her competition.

But for the 87.213% – a completely arbitrary statistic that I just made up – of us who are not running media machines, MNCs or Fortune 50 companies, subscribing to the “everyone is my competition” would be a huge mistake, in my opinion.

“Everyone” is not interested in what you’re selling. And when “everyone” is not interested in what you’re selling, they’re not looking at “everyone” when weighing alternatives. To me, it’s as simple as that.

So instead of trying to be everything to everyone, why not just be the best, or one of the best, to the people who are going to make a difference to you?

I’ve had my say… now it’s your turn. What do you think? Can “everyone” be your audience… and competition? And if so, how do you go about winning and getting ahead of them, respectively? Or do you, like me, think we need to be more focused in how we approach our audiences? Please do share, you know the floor is now yours!

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps smart businesses make bank by taking their communications from corporate codswallop to community cool™. She is also the founder of The Social PR Virtuoso®, which provides online, on-demand training that helps you unleash your inner Social PR superhero. Shonali is mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke