The Passive Mass Audience Has Left the Building

Think back. Way back. Applause still going, ears still ringing. Then you here it: “Elvis has left the building.” The lights come up and you find the door and, hopefully, your car.

About the same time this rock legend left the stage for good, lots of households watched TV with little more than a remote. Remotes were new at the time. There was relatively little to get in the way of the carefully planned programming on the three network stations until 2:00 a.m., when they shut off for the night.

Not only is programming — and information of all sorts — now streamed, beamed, and screamed 24/7, as an audience we have a whole lot more control over the programming than we did years ago. Not the formal programming, of course, that’s as centralized as ever, but over the programming that actually reaches us. The DVR and the Slingbox are two of the more obvious examples of end-user reprogramming tools that allow us control “when” and “where.”

Now “what” is coming under attack as countless short-form video services emerge, all more or less modeled after YouTube.

Where does this leave interactive marketing? In a pretty good spot, actually. Given consumers’ role as content programmers, the net result is they’re a lot more aware of the information around them. This means they’re better equipped (and more inclined) to actually play a role in moving content to where it really needs to go. This includes copying it onto their to-do list as a must-see or -purchase, as well as resending it via e-mail to a friend who’s known to be looking for this information. It also includes zapping it into digital limboland, a place where skipped commercials’ karmic energy accumulates to reemerge spontaneously as the next middle-of-the-pack Super Bowl ad.

How do you get your message onto the former while avoiding the latter? A few tips:

  • Make it easy to take action. What’s this for? What would you like me to do with it? Is it easy to copy? Or is the information buried in some impenetrable Flash presentation? How about a button reading: “Add this item to your Outlook or Google calendar”?

  • Make it easy to pass along. Forward to a friend is the ante. To really get in the game, allow me to add comments, perhaps link to an article I read about the topic, and send.
  • Offer rewards. And penalties. If there’s no benefit to passing on information, what’s the point? If my friend likes the information, reward me for sending it. If my friend thinks it’s trash, penalize me. Think about all that e-mail you receive from a “friend” with 800 names in the sender field and a joke you first heard in 1992.
  • Open a feedback channel. Did my friend use the information? Did I use the information? As marketers, wouldn’t it be great if you knew the answers to those questions? Ask me.

Consider this list. You can’t do these things with TV; it’s not interactive. You can’t do them with direct mail; it’s too difficult to forward a piece of paper to someone farther away than the dinner table. And you can’t do it with e-mail; too often, it’s a one-way “this e-mail has been sent to you by a robot who doesn’t accept replies.”

But you can do it all with a social network.

Marketers are moving into social networks, both as participants and platform owners, because they can market in ways not possible in a broadcast environment. Broadcast can reach lots of people, no doubt about it. But to get a message where it really needs to go: on my to-do list or into my friend’s inbox with my name in the sender field, you must be part of the social goings-on. You must also market via a platform that allows consumers to add value to your message, to validate that value through friends’ approval or disapproval, and to let you know (as a marketer) what worked and what didn’t. You can achieve all this in a social network.

The metrics change as well. Unlike mass channels, where group measures (mean and standard deviation, for example) make sense, in social networks it’s really individual conversations that are the best success predictors. It’s not as simple as 60 percent said “yes,” 40 percent “no.” It’s about understanding who said what and why, then acting on that. It’s about finding the unexpected, not affirming assumptions. The tools that allow quantified understanding of conversations enable these networks as marketing platforms.

As you consider your media mix, think about consumers’ shifting role. Far from the passivity of bygone TVs sans the remote and home phones used as much by telemarketers as by you, active social networkers are your allies when it comes to spreading a message. The mass audience may well have left the building, but they’ve reappeared on the social networks that connect them to a global community that behaves like a collection of local groups. Make it easy to spread the word. And make sure these new brand emissaries understand what’s in it for them when they do.

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