Some of the simplest and wisest advice in baseball came at the end of the 19th century, from a fellow named Wee Willie Keeler—actually, he was named William Henry Keeler, but he was a pretty short guy—who said, "Keep your eye clear, and hit 'em where they ain't." The idea, to hit balls to someplace an opposing fielder wasn't standing, seems to have worked out rather well for Keeler, as his .341 career batting average and a number of other related achievements made apparent. His advice, especially the latter part, is still valid today.
It's still valid in baseball, anyway. For marketers and other people trying to reach an audience, it's utter nonsense. Don't believe me? Ask the cast, crew, and fans of a TV show called Community.
NBC's Community, added to the Thursday-night comedy lineup three years ago, is about a group of diverse and damaged people sharing a study group at a community college. If you're older than me, chances are the only regular cast member you've heard of is Chevy Chase. It's an ensemble cast, and star power is irrelevant here. The show is all about clashing personalities, skewed world views, and wacky premises, and it is absolutely hilarious. The writing is tight and clever, the plots are old-school crazy sitcom ideas turned sideways with parodic genius, and the characters are the best combination of well-realized and impossible to believe. I love this show.
Of course, Community is going away. While it rates consistently high among critics and fans alike in papers and TV blogs, it's circling the drain in the one place where ratings actually count—the Nielsens. The show has been put on midseason hiatus, and is likely to be cancelled once the third season has finished shooting. The reason, you'll soon see, is ridiculous.
Community is huge in its demographic. There's not a single person I know between the ages of 25 and 45 who isn't aware of—and in love with—this show. Many of us watch it timeshifted through DVR or services like Hulu, but we watch it. The Nielsen Company, provider of TV viewership statistics since there was such a thing as TV, doesn't think so, because Nielsen ratings are only collected through households with a landline. If part of your telephone needs to be connected to the wall at all times, Nielsen thinks your opinion matters. If you rely on mobile or Skype, you don't exist.
Therein lies the problem. Look at that age range I just quoted. That's the heart of Gen X and Gen Y, the hip, unconventional crowd that's had access to mobile technology for most or all of its collective life. People who are likely to change jobs and dwellings far more often than their forebears. People who have shown a predilection for only having mobile or Skype phone service because it's easier. The agency responsible for counting the people who watch this show is unable to see them. Of course Community's ratings are in the toilet.
Fortunately, there is a community surrounding Community. In the grand tradition of show-saving that began with Star Trek (another NBC show) in the late 1960s, fans are mobilizing to make the network aware that they want their program to stay on the air. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. But you can be sure that the fan base isn't going to sign up for terrestrial phone service to prevent this from happening again. Nielsen and the networks need to realize they're looking in the wrong place to find out who's watching what.
Do you know where your fans are? All of them? You'd better, because if you're hitting your message to where they ain't, things are going to go bad in a hurry. And most businesses don't have a fan base that will rally to save them.
Marshall Lager is the founder and principal of Third Idea Consulting, and loves finding ways to make recreational activities into paying work. Reach him on the couch at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.twitter.com/Lager.