One of the tough parts of a job where your task is to “know people” — meaning have some level of expertise in what they think, feel, care about, are motivated by, etc. — is that actual, real-life people defy generalization. Thinking about groups of people based on interests or demographics almost always misses the nuances of individual taste, circumstance, personality, and so on.
Case in point, the LA Times attributes rising NFL ratings to the popularity of fantasy football, using an atypical example to prove the scope of its effect:
When they first gathered three years ago, the group of women in their 30s and 40s was so green that one member asked if “fantasy” meant picking the hottest NFL players. Now they’re a bunch of obsessives who, in building and competing with their pseudo-teams using real players and figures, pore over yardage stats and go by huddle-tough nicknames like the Grinder. And they watch each game like it’s wanted for murder.
“In fantasy football every game counts,” said Kierstan Cleary, a pharmaceutical sales representative and mother of two young sons who described herself as at most a casual fan before joining the Hail Marys. Her viewing of games on TV during that time, she estimates, has tripled to about 30 per season.
Broadening the audience will be great for the sport, no doubt. And good for these women that they didn’t succumb to the conventional wisdom that says fantasy football is only for aging male jocks.
But what this demonstrates more than anything, I’d say, is that we live in an age where anything can be for everyone. Old lines are constantly being broken down. If we focus on making something great — a product, a story, a service, whatever it is — instead of pleasing a very narrow group of easy targets, there’s a vastly larger opportunity for success. Did ESPN or Yahoo Sports think that by building an easy-to-use fantasy sports application that they’d be pulling in suburban moms? Doubtful. But the casual gaming and participatory viewing aspects are so addictively fun, they did anyway. Quality propagates itself.
Look at a film like Scott Pilgrim. A very fun movie that I personally loved, but marketed a little too heavily to the comic-and-video-game crowd it references so heavily. That movie underwhelmed at the box office. However, I’d venture that because it really is a terrific accomplishment in filmmaking, it will be discovered by a lot of people on home video and end up as a film with staying power. When I went to a Best Buy to pick up a copy as a gift, it was sold out.
Then look at Inception, a cerebral, complicated film that certainly doesn’t scream lowest common denominator. But by crafting those elements into a solid action heist thriller, it pulled in enormous audiences — something no studio would have believed to be true and green lit, were it not for the clout of Christopher Nolan post-Batman.
Think of these movies, or the Old Spice Guy, or Lost, or Harry Potter books, and imagine: would they have existed if the powers that be settled for the assumption that, “this isn’t for everyone” meant it wasn’t worth doing? Or are they cases that suggest if we focus on quality, the people will come?
I’d like to believe that when we think in terms of target audiences and market research, we’re only taking the bland average of a small sample of a whole broad array of really interesting, individual human beings. The safe road is to appeal to the middle, or laser-target the easily identifiable edges. But in reality, all people are basically open to the new, different, challenging, and quirky a lot more than we think. In fact they crave it. We just have to trust them to know good when they see it, and trust ourselves to make good things worth finding, and get out of the way.