Is It a Snake or an Elephant?

We all know the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each man feels a different part of the elephant and figures the whole animal to be like the part he experienced. It’s not until they feel the whole animal that they know what they’re dealing with. It’s an instructive tale of perception we online marketers should take to heart. Our experiences with our particular market segment often cloud our judgments about what the entire online world is like, leading to strategies that just don’t make sense.

Where we (and our clients) come from has a big effect on our thinking. Witness the current mania about Second Life. Sure, the virtual world’s kinda cool, but it’s still pretty much a niche player, attracting a relatively small audience compared to other online media. But this hasn’t stopped some major brands from sinking big bucks into the service, big enough to spawn a number of new agencies and a lot of press. Will it be worth it? I don’t think anyone will see a big payoff (besides first-mover press) for a while.

This isn’t a diatribe against Second Life. There’s promise in virtual communities in the long run. But the hype surrounding the service is indicative of the kind of insular thinking that those of us on the cutting edge often turn into conventional wisdom: we’re doing it, so everyone else should be, too.

But perception’s one thing; reality’s another. Take Black Friday and Cyber Monday: the two post-Thanksgiving days often hailed as the biggest shopping days of the year. Though anyone caught standing in line at the local big box Friday morning might think everyone in the world is shopping, a new study sponsored by MasterCard finds the biggest pre-Christmas shopping day last year was December 23. And though many of you doing some online shopping today might get the impression that your favorite e-store’s servers are slower than normal, that impression might come more from post-holiday hangovers than reality. December 5 is actually the biggest online shopping day.

Clients often suffer from their own myopia. They’re nervous about testing new technologies because they aren’t users, regardless of what their customers are doing. This kind of thinking rears its head when we propose new channels, such as blogs, RSS feeds, and podcasts. “Sure, that stuff’s cool,” goes the refrain, “but it’s a little too techie for our customers.”

Not true. The adoption of new online communication technology is probably greater than most of us previously thought, according to a new study released by Bluestreak. Looking at a panel of 1,000 online users, Bluestreak found 88 percent use text messaging, 71 percent use message boards, 63 percent use blogs, 36 percent use podcasting, and 28 percent subscribe to RSS feeds — much higher adoption numbers than conventional wisdom often holds.

No matter what side of the table we sit on, we must not to let our experiences cloud how we see the elephant. We must never assume audiences are monolithic. As a new Media-Screen study shows, consumers approach the Internet in many different ways, depending on a wide variety of interests, needs, and lifestyle choices. Seeing them as a monolithic mass (perhaps only divided along demographic lines) is wrong. When planning new campaigns, considering new technologies, or developing new strategies to reach our target audiences, we must remember that though the elephant may feel one way to you, others may be experiencing something completely different.

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