Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mass Appeal vs. Cult Appeal :: Jay Leno vs. Team CoCo

Internet analysts and Web entrepreneurs have been arguing over this for quite some time. Is it better to have huge amounts of traffic or a significantly smaller, but more loyal, number of followers? Or, to put it another way, when it comes to your audience, is it better to have quantity or quality?

A lot of my readers, immersed in online social-networks and contributing to websites based on user-generated content, might assume that quality is the answer. The digerati wisdom suggests that 50 very loyal followers are more valuable than 5000 daily random page hits. But actual website owners and blog authors who obsess over their analytics each night and rely on Google Ads to make their money might sometimes disagree.

The late-night TV wars bear these arguments out as well. James Poniewozik writes in Time Magazine this week that Jay Leno represents "the last of the big-tent comics, dedicated to the principle of something for everybody". Meanwhile, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Conan O'Brien and his "Team CoCo" have now come to embody the niche-media model, where success is measured by the intensity level of your followers, not the absolute number of them.

Conan and TBS are betting it is better to have a smaller group of fans who care intensely about what you do than a bigger number who care just enough to not change the channel. It doesn't apply only to comedians. More people watch Brian Williams every night than Glenn Beck; that doesn't make Williams more influential.

Indeed, it is certainly possible that the right cult audience can generate an outsize influence. But in the debate over mass appeal vs. cult appeal, let us remember that while the loyal cult audience is a highly romanticized notion, it rarely translates into greater monetization. We'd all rather celebrate the local microbrewery that doesn't water down its taste to the lowest common denominator, but nevertheless it's still Budweiser that rakes in the big bucks.


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