Constructing and Managing Audiences

Chapter Introduction

Media organisations make and manage audiences.

How are audiences made?

What work do audiences do?

How has interactive media changed the production and management of audiences?


In this chapter we:

  • Examine how audiences are produced.  
  • Identify forms of audience work.
  • Explore how audiences are becoming more fragmented and flexible as media organisations assemble, watch, and respond to them in real time. 

Cases & Activities

Media kits: packaging the audience

Media businesses package their audiences as commodities to sell to advertisers. Print publications like magazines produce media kits that they make available to prospective advertisers. You can often find these media kits on magazine and newspaper websites. Media kits promote the publication’s audience. They detail the audience’s qualities: size, publication channels they access, their demographics, tastes and interests.

Interactive media businesses like Google and Facebook often don’t provide media kits, but rather advertising products where advertisers can construct and price audiences with a range of characteristics.

Explore the media kits and advertising products of media that you use.

Make an advertisement for yourself or an identity group to which you belong.

What characteristics do you have that advertisers would seek?

What kind of attention do you offer? Where can you be found? What kinds of media attract your attention?

How would an advertiser find you and appeal to you?



Frankie media kit.

Nylon media kit.

Vogue media kit.

Vogue media kit (Australia).

Facebook’s advertising products.

Google’s advertising products.


Buzzfeed and native advertising

For much of the twentieth century the relationship between editorial and content was a relatively clear one. A reader of a newspaper could clearly see the difference between the ‘news’ and the ‘advertising’. This was true in most mass and broadcast media. The audience could discern what was advertising and what was the editorial or entertainment content.

The ‘deal’ that formed between media organisations, their audiences and advertisers was relatively stable. Media organisations produced content that audiences wanted to see, to fund the production of that content media organisations sold space to advertisers. The audience had to watch advertising to support the production of the news and entertainment.

As we have discussed in this chapter, this model has changed dramatically with the emergence of interactive and social media. One key change in the production and sale of audiences is ‘native’ branding and advertising. Native advertising refers to paid promotional content that is presented as part of the editorial content.

One of the innovators in the development of native content is the news site Buzzfeed. Rather than sell advertisements that sit alongside the editorial content, Buzzfeed sells brands opportunities to ‘sponsor’ and play a role in creating the editorial content.

Buzzfeed is a news service that has developed interdependently with the social web. It depends on getting its audience to share its content through their own online social networks. 75% of views of Buzzfeed stories come from social media feeds, rather than people visiting the site. One of the consequences of this is that there is little opportunity to provide advertising in the traditional sense because the audience don’t visit the actual Buzzfeed website.

Buzzfeed therefore need to ‘natively’ integrate the advertising content into the editorial and entertainment content. Rather than sell advertising space Buzzfeed sell ‘social storytelling’. They have a team of brand content writers who work with brands to write stories that combine brand messages with news and entertainment content.

When the Australian government released its Federal budget in May 2014, the bank ING worked with Buzzfeed to create a story ‘What    the budget means for anyone who doesn’t have an economics degree’. The story was written in the standard Buzzfeed style: internet memes, images, and humour. The story went through a list of people students, mums, drivers, the environment. For each category is put a red cross or a green tick to indicate whether they were a ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ from the budget.

At the top of the story it explained it was published by a ‘brand publisher’ and at the bottom it stated ‘brought to you by ING Direct. Check out how their Orange Everyday account can help your salary go further.’

Buzzfeed help brands to get online audiences to share brand stories. They tell brands that this turns them from a ‘fan who passively likes you on Facebook to an advocate who tells their friends they love your brand’. The brand offers a news story that enables people in their target markets to tell their friends what they think and how they feel. In this media model there is no distinction between editorial and advertising content. Buzzfeed argue their model works in part because younger audiences don’t care about the separation between editorial and advertising in the way it is presumed older audiences do.

Buzzfeed explain that they don’t aim to ‘trick’ people into clicking on a brand post. Rather, audiences say ‘I know this is an ad, but it’s too interesting and too funny not to share, I know I’m doing the work for you but I don’t care’. What the audience member gets in return for sharing the item of brand content is the opportunity to make themselves visible and present in their social networks.

Rather than sell ‘empty’ advertising space for brands to fill, Buzzfeed work with brands to integrate them into the storytelling and sharing practices of the site. This is a commercial media model attuned to the way social media sorts and organises flows of content. Buzzfeed help brands generate attention within the feeds of content people interact with on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit.

How will ‘native’ advertising change the relationship between news and advertising?



Buzzfeed’s Facebook page for sponsored content.

ING Direct’s ‘What the budget means for anyone who doesn’t have an economics degree’ Buzzfeed post.

John Oliver’s explanation of native advertising.


Tracking the trackers: Lightbeam and Ghostery

As we move about the web many organisations track and collect data about our movements. Some of those organisations are well-known to us. We know that Amazon uses our search and purchase history to make recommendations, we know Netflix uses information about our viewing habits to recommend films, and we know Facebook use all the information we enter into the platform to tailor the content in our news feed. But, we don’t tend to be as aware that Facebook track many of our movements on other websites, and use that information to tailor the information we receive when we use Facebook. And, there are a range of other organisations that collect data about our online lives, package it, and sell it.

You can install apps on your internet browser that ‘track the trackers’. These can show you what organisations are collecting information about you and potentially who they might be sharing that information with.

Install an app like Lightbeam or Collusion on your browser. Track the organisations that collect your data as you browse the web over several days or a week. Draw a map of which sites are linked to which tracking organisations. Note the names of those organisations, see what you can find out about them: what do they do? Who owns them? What other organisations are they connected with? What do they do with your information?

Do you prefer ‘relevant’ and ‘tailored’ advertising? Why?

Compare the personal and social implications of the collection and use of personal information by advertisers.



Mozilla’s Lightbeam.


Gary Kovac’s TED talk ‘Tracking the trackers’.

Joseph Turow in The Atlantic on digital advertising and online tracking.

Joseph Turow on NPR.

Joseph Turow on Knowledge at Wharton.

Ford Foundation sponsored discussion about data and media.


Building the Facebook news feed algorithm

In a blog post on Facebook, user experience researcher Jane Justice Leibrock explains her research with Facebook users to determine how best to prioritise content in their news feeds. Facebook aims to keep people engaged with the platform for as long as possible. The longer and more frequently people are engaged the more opportunities Facebook has to target them with advertising and generate revenue from them.

To continue to generate audience attention Facebook iteratively develops its news feed algorithm to be able to make more and more accurate decisions about what content to show users. The algorithm prioritises content users will find more engaging (like photos), was generated by people they like (based on similar interests, peer networks, and previous interactions via likes, shares, comments and messages) and is about things users are interested in (based on similarity or affinity between posters).

Justice-Leibrock explains, ‘As a user experience researcher, my job is to uncover the true and often unspoken needs of people using Facebook.’  She used open-ended interviews to discover that when users said their feeds were ‘cluttered’ what they really meant was that there were too many stories in there they weren’t interested in. To get to the bottom of this problem she undertook a ‘card sort’ exercise where she got users to show her how they would prioritise content in their news feeds. Justice-Leibrock gave users a stack of recent stories from their news feeds and asked them to prioritise them on a wall. This helped Facebook to understand people’s intuitive decisions about the content they wanted to see. Facebook then incorporated these insights into the decision making logic of the news feed algorithm.

Facebook constantly conducts experiments to improve its news feed. In 2014, one of Facebook’s ‘mood experiments’ caused significant public debate after being published in a journal. The Atlantic explains, ‘For one week in January 2012, data scientists skewed what almost 700,000 Facebook users saw when they logged into its service. Some people were shown content with a preponderance of happy and positive words; some were shown content analyzed as sadder than average. And when the week was over, these manipulated users were more likely to post either especially positive or negative words themselves.’

What are the ethical considerations of the experiments used in the design of algorithms?



Facebook’s User Experience Lab on their news feed algorithm research.

The Atlantic’s explanation of the Facebook mood experiment.

Tarleton Gillespie on the Facebook mood experiment.

Danah Boyd on the Facebook mood experiment.

Further Readings

The readings below examine the various kinds of productive activity undertaken by audiences: the work of being watched (Andrejevic 2002), the work of ranking, rating and expressing opinions (Andrejevic 2008, Hearn 2010), and the work of creating content (Martens 2011). The readings by Turow (2009, 2011) examine consumer attitudes to surveillance and the role that surveillance technologies play in creating valuable audiences for sale to advertisers.

Andrejevic, M. (2002). The Work of Being Watched: Interactive media and the exploitation of self-disclosure. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19(2), 230-248.

Andrejevic, M. (2008). Watching Television Without Pity The Productivity of Online Fans. Television & New Media, 9(1), 24-46.

Hearn, A. (2010). Structuring feeling: Web 2.0, online ranking and rating, and the digital ‘reputation’ economy. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organisation, 10(3/4).

Martens, M. (2011). Transmedia teens: Affect, immaterial labor, and user-generated content. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 17(1), 49-68.

Turow, J., King, J., Hoofnagle, C. J., Bleakley, A., & Hennessy, M. (2009). Americans reject tailored advertising and three activities that enable it. Available at SSRN 1478214.

Turow, J. (2012). The daily you: How the new advertising industry is defining your identity and your worth. Yale University Press.