Audience capture is a risk that can be avoided by focusing on value
3 min read

Audience capture is a risk that can be avoided by focusing on value

The term audience capture came up in a recent Making Sense podcast episode (link to timestamp). Supposedly coined by Eric Weinstein (though I find only a single reference to it online) it describes the situation when a creator starts to tell the audience what they want to hear and get rewarded for it. Which can lead to a reinforcing cycle. The risk of this phenomenon sounds very plausible.

More and more people grow an audience and start to earn a living from it. Social media platforms connect creators with their audience in a very tight feedback loop. In large groups, there is a phenomenon that people with extreme positions make themselves more heard than the silent majority. To make things worse, algorithms tend to favor engaging content that priorities outrage or controversies. Especially as a creator, the risk of succumbing to these pressures is high.

This could get amplified when the creator adopts a mindset of chasing metrics. If the main goal is to get more followers, criticism can easily feel like negative feedback towards this goal. But criticism of some people is an inevitable part of growing a community as you need people to leave your audience who are not a good fit for your expertise. So audience capture is a real risk that can hurt your credibility as an expert in the long run.

Focus on value for your community

The focus on value for your community can act as a compass to avoid this problem. Obviously, anybody that engages in value exchange - be it a business or a single creator - should consult their audience for feedback. But catering to emotions can start a vicious circle where your value as the expert is at risk. A community seeks insights and transformation from an expert. Catering to opinions and behaviors that go against the value creation and audience already shows has little potential to provide this transformation.

If your value proposition is to provide facts to your audience, then you better deliver these facts also if they spark negative emotions. Otherwise, you may gain some (questionable) approval in the short term, but lose credibility from the silent majority in the long run.

An illustrative example

Imagine a fitness instructor that is an expert at building up the body of an athlete. We are all painfully aware that this requires to do the workouts and the repetitions and there is no real shortcut to success. The popular 7-minute app gives a very small goal and gets many good reviews from people that are starting. But the underlying promise to finish a full exercise in a short time will only bring you this far. Whoever wants to be an athlete, needs to "upgrade" to a more elaborate workout routine at some point. This takes more time but is also a harder sell to an audience.

If the fitness instructor would cater to the feelings of their audience they would focus only on the easy 7-minute workout. This would result in an audience of beginners that never reach their desired athlete state. So by focusing on the value generation, the fitness instructor could keep the 7-minute workout as a tool to start a workout routine. But she would also constantly educate her audience that the body of an athlete requires time and work. Even if this is not the easiest sell.

Origin of the term audience capture

There are surprisingly few Google hits about this subject in combination with Eric Weinstein (240 hits). Even more surprising for me was that one of the few credible sources is a classic New York Times opinion piece by Bari Weiss that is often referenced for coining the term "Intellectual Dark Web". I've read the article and the term audience capture didn't stick back then. However, the article contains also an illustrative example of the phenomenon:

One risk is what Eric Weinstein has called “audience capture.” Since stories about left-wing-outrage culture — the fact that the University of California, Berkeley, had to spend $600,000 on security for Mr. Shapiro’s speech there, say — take off with their fans, members of the Intellectual Dark Web may have a hard time resisting the urge to deliver that type of story. This probably helps explain why some people in this group talk constantly about the regressive left but far less about the threat from the right.
— Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web (nytimes.com)

Evergreen log:
Jan 8, 21 - Posted