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I'm an assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where I teach and research how news sites can better reach their audiences. I received my Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where I was one of the founding editors of MyMissourian.com, a citizen journalism site for Columbia, Mo. Before graduate school, I worked as a community newspaper editor in Southern Utah and Southern California.

Lisatickledpink shows loyalty of online audiences

Any media magnate wondering if his organization could create a large, self-sustaining audience online needs to go to Twitter and add lisatickledpink as a friend. The owner of that account, Lisa Etheridge, unwittingly proved how loyal, how malleable and how massive at least one podcast’s audience can be.

In his weekly show this week, Leo Laporte decided to try an experiment. He noticed that Conan O’Brien, the former NBC late night host, decided to follow someone at random on Twitter to see her life would change. The lucky victim, I mean fan, was lovelybutton, whose real name is Sarah Killen, has more than 27,000 followers as of press time (which means 4 p.m. on March 12, when I’m writing this). Laporte, the former TechTV guru and the mastermind behind a slate of technology related podcasts, one-upped Conan on his weekly This Week in Tech podcast. Kevin Rose, a guest on the show, searched for the phrase “I hate technology” and stumbled on Etheridge. Laporte broadcast her Twitter handle to his audience, and before the end of the show, she had nearly 3,000 followers.

Today’s a week later and she’s up to nearly 21,000. Etheridge, who had no knowledge of the plan, thought she had done something wrong when she started receiving thousands of e-mails from Twitter. She had set her preferences on the site to receive an e-mail whenever someone follows her. I’ve been impressed how she’s handled her new-found fame with grace, dignity and good humor.

So why would a media magnate care about a person in New Zealand, like Etheridge, and a podcast they probably hadn’t heard of before? Turn the number of follows Etheridge now has into a circulation number, newspaper folks, and you’ll have more listeners than most of the papers I worked for had readers. Then consider that those 20,000 didn’t just passively listen to a show. They enjoyed the show so much they did what the host asked them to do. They’re more than just subscribers. The closest term I have for them is fans.

Both Laporte and Conan have paid their dues to earn such a loyal following, but I have to wonder if news organizations could do the same. Yes, a lot of news personalities have podcasts or Twitter accounts, but what separates the Laportes from the rest of the world is their commitment to it. It’s impossible to generate an audience online without understanding how people consume online media. More concretely, you’ll have nothing but casual followers online until you give them something to do and they trust you enough to do it.

That’s reflected in what both Etheridge and Killen are doing with their celebrity status. They have both championed causes they are asking their Twitter followers to support. Etheridge told Laporte that she’s already feeling she might need to quit going to school to keep up with all the direct messages and @s she’s received. That’s admirable because it shows that someone who initially said she hated technology seems to understand it better than many media organizations. She’s not just posting information. She’s truly interacting with people online. She’s not just reading their comments. She’s calling them to action, and she’s using their collective knowledge to make things better.

It shouldn’t take an online celebrity to make us realize that.

PhotoCredit: A screencapture of Leo Laporte’s interview with Lisa Etheridge, the person whose Twitter account he decided at random to feature on his show, This Week in Tech.

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