I was listening to NPR on my way home from work and heard
an interview with Debra Lee, the chief executive of BET (Black Entertainment Television).
At one point, she was asked whom she defines as her competition, and she said:
“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.”
Earlier in the interview, when asked about BET’s role, she said:
“BET’s been around for 32 years, and our role today is the same as it’s always been … 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 [are] still very few outlets that
Those answers seem contradictory.
If BET’s role is to provide a platform for African-American programming, news, and information, 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, too, 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 and the increasing competition, and because they have
no idea how to cut through the clutter
It just doesn’t sit right with me. If everyone’s your competition, then everyone’s your audience. If everyone’s your audience, then no
one’s your audience. I didn’t come up with that line, but I subscribe to it.
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. There are many other questions I ask, 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.
One important question we need the client to answer is
who the audience is, or how the various audiences are prioritized, as well as what we hope to persuade the audience(s) to do. Then we can devise a strategy and tactics to
achieve those objectives.
If “everyone” is your audience, how can you do this?
Yes, the Internet makes information accessible to everyone. (That means everyone online, but for the purpose of this post, it’s probably OK to generalize
this particular “everyone.”)
That doesn’t mean “everyone” is going to affect 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 why there’s so much poppycock around it.
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 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.
Not “everyone” is interested in what you’re selling. And when not “everyone” is interested in what you’re selling, they’re not looking at “everyone” when
weighing alternatives. 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?
What do you think? Can “everyone” be your audience—and your competition? And if so, how do you go about winning them—and getting ahead of them? Or do you
think, as I do, that we need to be more focused in how we approach our audiences?
Shonali Burke is vice president of digital at MSL Washington, D.C., is the founder of the popular #measurePR Twitter chat, and an adjunct faculty member at
Johns Hopkins University's M.A. in Communication
program. A version of this article first appeared on