Article by our own Sue Gillan.

While performing improv comedy scenes at Chicago’s Second City Theater for more than a decade, the first thing we’d do is take suggestions from the audience.  We were then bound to use these real-time suggestions throughout the scene.  What happened when we ignored them or, more often, in our excitement to follow a thread we felt was working, forgot to use them? The audience would start to turn on us.  They no longer felt included and therefore the content we created was exponentially less interesting to them.   And if we were not agile in our response – if we didn’t pay attention to the fact that we were losing our audience – we ran the very real risk of not being able to win them back.

The same dynamic – including your audience in real time to keep them engaged – exists wherever brands have a social presence.  Of course, it’s different when you’ve got 300 people, live in a room (with half of them half in the bag) vs. tens of thousands of followers scattered all over the world (though I would posit a few of them are half in the bag, as well) but the similarities are there, and they matter.  A lot.

Advertising used to be a one-way street.  Potential consumers were shown and told key information about a brand’s identity (“Virginia is for Lovers”) and they would then decide whether or not that brand was a fit for them (“I enjoy sex out of wedlock, I would very much like to go to Virginia.”)

Today, the one-way street approach to advertising and marketing simply doesn’t work.  Consumers are now a live audience – participating in real time – and the brands that know how to listen, and allow themselves to be shaped but not dominated by that audience are those that have the best shot at thriving in the shape-shifter that is the current marketing landscape.

In improv, we are all equally responsible for making sure the scenes are hitting and, if they aren’t, reacting quickly with a new offering or an edit to re-set the course.  That’s how we protect scenes from tanking. In the marketing world, the more ready we are to respond to new research or social feedback, the more agile we can be in responding to those inputs.  What we call “protecting your partner” can easily be translated to “protect your client” and the brand.

But what about the drunk in the back with the big, loud voice? The voice nobody wants to listen to?  At an improv club, we have to be careful not to let the loudest voice influence us – unless we feel that voice needs to be managed in order to protect the greater audience.  Because of the nature of improv, there are inevitably a couple of interrupters or over-zealous-ers in the audience who can throw a scene off.  If it’s a one-time, minor disruption, taking the high road and letting it go is our favorite first choice.  We don’t want to look insecure or defensive by monitoring too aggressively – that could actually backfire on us and discourage overall participation.  But if the outburst is a biggie or if it recurs – in other words, if the rest of our audience is in jeopardy of enjoying their experience less – it is crucial that we confidently, deftly and with a sense a humor, address the naysayer and shut it down.

The same thinking approach applies brand audience.  Listen vigilantly, and – like any good improviser – don’t be afraid to respond swiftly and definitively.  After all, you’re the expert.