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The Concept Of “Audience Fragmentation” Is Bullshit
I was trying to put this in as eloquent way as possible, but no matter how hard I may try not to use it, sometimes the sledgehammer approach is the most effective thing you can use. So here it is: Our concept of fame is out of date, and it’s not for the reason you think. It has everything to do with what we often refer to as “audeience fragmentation” in the media / marketing world.
So, let’s start there …
I came to this conclusion this morning after I saw someone passing around a recent Seth Godin article. I’m not going to say who they were, and I’m not going to link to it because that would give it credence and SEO juice. I know journalists are all about linking to everything, but I’m not a journalist, and I don’t think some of them fully appreciate how meaningful a link is from their site in the eyes of Google. That’s why I feel like whenever people talk about anti-vaccers, climate change deniers, or fans of Joss Whedon*, you shouldn’t link to their bullshit. It just tells Google to make it easier to find. Google doesn’t care that the thing you’re linking to is bullshit, it just cares that a credible site is linking to a way less credible one and values the less credible one better.
(*I’m totally kidding. I don’t know if I’m totally sold on Buffy yet, as I’m just now getting around to watching it, but I really liked Dr. Horrible’s Singalong-Blog and The Avengers.)
In the Godin post, he’s basically saying the same dumb thing he was saying twelve years ago. Almost verbatim. So how he’s convincing people to pass around his stuff without saying anything new for years, ditto with Guy Kawasaki, is pretty amazing, but no less dangerous.
What he’s saying is that the mass media is going away, as is the mass audience. But it got me thinking. Is that really true? Nope. It’s Not. Not at all.
The media and advertising agencies like to talk about audience fragmentation obsessively, but let’s disqualify advertising agencies because a lot of them are honestly dumb. Especially when it comes to the digital stuff. So they don’t really know what they’re talking about (with a few exceptions here and there.)
The media fundamentally doesn’t understand digital. I think at this point that should be obvious to even the most casual observer. You can find proof of that just in the sheer volume of pro-social media posts they crank out in spite of the facts.
So let me ask you, because I know you’re smart if you’re reading this. You get it. Where did this fragmentation myth come from?
You think it’s clear from declining television ratings? Are you sure? Because the NFL, particularly with the Super Bowl, has been putting up monster numbers, consistently setting television ratings records in the process. (And let’s not forget the record ratings set on cable for the College Football Championship game.)
People are watching The Walking Dead on cable and not a broadcast network? Surely that must prove the theory true, right? Nope. Also monster numbers set on a fairly routine basis. At one point The Walking Dead reached 28 million weekly viewers. Those are Seinfeld numbers. Remember that because we’ll get back to that in a moment.
When you look at some of your favorite shows and factor in the DVR numbers, Hulu views, and other views (like if you downloaded The Venture Brothers on iTunes like I do and watch episodes of it), are the viewing numbers really that far off from what they were when guys like Godin talk about “the good old days”*?
(*I have a lot of skepticism about that too. Just look at Tupperware and how they grew. Sure they had commercials, but what fueled their growth were the Tupperware parties that they threw. We also can’t somehow discount, just because it’s convenient to the media fragmentation narrative, that there were simply fewer products back then too. So a drop in sales for brands compared to the 50’s, for example, to today, has to factor that in. It also has to factor in that society was different back then and it’s a dynamic and fluid thing, so you can’t fairly compare people today and people then because a lot of other things beyond their TV consumption is different. That’s why I get crazy when people try to argue about who the greatest baseball player is. You can’t do it. The game changed numerous times and continues to change.
Each era may have their greats, but the greatest of all time across all eras? Forget it. You can’t do that. You can’t compare Roger Maris to Sammy Sosa, and really you can’t compare Sammy Sosa to Ryan Braun, even though both of them were using steroids. They my have that commonality, but there are a ton of other things that are different. Same deal with people using TV ratings as a baseline metric to push these dumb, sweeping narratives.)
And more to the point: Are TV ratings really the best measurement to use when we talk about audience fragmentation?
Ok. Let’s say they’re not.Let’s say you want to use something else, like the Hollywood box office. Surely the amount of choices viewers and consumers have today would impact the box office results of films released in this modern era of ours.
Are you sure you want to use that as your metric? Because the highest grossing films that dominate the top ten (Avatar, The Avengers, Titanic, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Iron Man 3, two shitty Transformers films, Frozen, The Lord Of The Rings: Return of the King, and the most recent James Bond film) all but two of those films are recent. Titanic and The Lord Of The Rings aside, all came in the past five years or so.
When you adjust for inflation, Titanic and Avatar are still in the top ten but the others are not. But … That’s sort of like drawing a line in the sand and then erasing it and drawing another because you don’t like the conclusion. We’re not talking about inflation, we’re talking about money made, and the fact of the matter is that those films, despite the myth of fragmentation and infinite choice would cut into the money that could be made, they all set box office records.
So the box office and this idea that you can’t reach a mass audience, or that the mass audience doesn’t exist anymore, doesn’t support that fragmentation theory either.
(If you’re wondering about newspapers, I extensively covered that specific industry and why the fragmentation thing was bogus in my book.)
Well what about the devices? Surely because people are consuming content from numerous providers on mobile and on tablets, that means THINGS HAVE CHANGED FOREVER for reaching the masses (as Godin and friends suggest).
Do you think so?
I’m a big WWE fan. Not of the main product (i.e. Monday Night Raw and the things formerly known as PPVs). The main product is awful. I like a lot of the performers, but the writing and stories are generally terrible. I’m talking about WWE’s NXT. That’s the best, televised, professional wrestling show produced each week around the country. It’s only an hour. The characters don’t act like dumb giant babies (like all the heroes on the main roster do, especially John Cena, the flagship character), there’s a lot of diversity, and the women and their matches are treated with the respect they deserve.
In fact, at the last NXT event, the women’s match was the co-main event, and I thought was the best match of the night. (Yes, even better than Balor-Neville.)
What does that have to do with what we’re talking about? I watch NXT on my iPad. A few times, like if I’m on the road somewhere but have a decent Wi-Fi connection, I’ll watch it on my phone. I’m still watching the same content I would have at home, but the device is different.
So who cares how the content is consumed? Who says the device matters? I’ll tell you a secret. Lean in real close so you can hear it. Ready? It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t! Never did!
You always hear that old chestnut about how Seinfeld had monster ratings and it’d be the top rated show if it aired today. That’s a half-truth. Yes, Seinfeld had great ratings. It was a great show with a bad series finale. But the ratings measurements today are different. Sure if you go the traditional Nielsen home route you can make that claim, but then you start factoring in delayed viewing, Hulu views, and all the other stuff I mentioned, and that comparison doesn’t totally work anymore. I’m not the only one who noticed this. “Seinfeld Numbers” still very much exist, just look at The Walking Dead. Or better yet, how about Empire?
So that should kill this stupid shit theory dead right there, or so you would think. Some of you might be going, “but what about social media?”
Ok. Well, what about social media? Ah! That’s where this gets fun.
So How Do We Define Fame Then? Are The “Internet Famous” Really Famous?
As I pointed out in the book, what are the most popular things on (most) social media platforms? If you guessed content produced by known brands and producers, you’re a winner.
So this whole “the mass audience and mass media is fading away” thing isn’t true. Let’s all take a deep breath and agree that friends don’t let friends share Seth Godin articles anymore. Or better, any of these marketing hacks or other media types who want to peddle this old, busted narrative.
And all of this sort of brings us to Internet Celebrities. Because the folks who want to talk about fragmentation are always quick to bring up Internet Celebrities to support their claims.
But I think they’re conflating two very different things to help make their stupid point. They’re saying that the existence of an Internet Celebrity proves their case for audience fragmentation because you can be famous on Vine and nowhere else.
(Just a random aside: Fuck Vine. They claim to have 40 million “registered users”, but that’s a phony metric startups and tech companies like to use to impress media types who don’t know any better. They haven’t disclosed the number of active users that they have. Brands (specifically their agencies) are stupidly paying Vine users with the most followers, but that’s pretty easy to fake and load up with bots and dummy accounts. It’s also proof of how negligent some of these ad agencies are for using the brand’s money that way.
So all we really get in terms of metrics is that there has been 1.5 billion loops, or when a vine post replays itself. But if you use Vine, loops happen pretty rapidly because the clips are only six seconds and you have to scroll past them or press on them to stop it from looping. Plus some vine videos are designed to reward you for watching through a bunch of loops, so 1.5 billion sounds like a lot, but that number comes down real fast when you look into it. I’m not saying people don’t use it. And I’m not saying some of the people who make vines aren’t talented, but what you see is DEFINITELY not what you get when it comes to Vine. No matter what idiotic posts journalists and bloggers want to write about “how their kids use the Internet” or “How teenagers use the Internet”. Shit, if you ever wanted to read something that reaks of privilege, look no further than any of those posts. And be wary of people who want to talk to you about Vine.)
I don’t think the conflation works. I think the existence of the Internet Celebrity, or the “Internet Famous” is a very specific phenomenon. One that some of the same folks who talk about fragmentation are quick to dismiss. Go and look at the definition for Internet Famous or Internet Celebrity. You’ll see the definition (including one that links to an OOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLDDDDD CNN article) talks about how you can be famous to fifteen people and that makes you Internet famous.
(There’s also this really dumb thing where we suggest a viral phenomenon is the same as an Internet celebrity, and while it may briefly be true, I think it’s best that we keep those two things in separate buckets.)
The 15 person suggestion isn’t true. It’s true if you’re pushing the fragmentation narrative, but listen, I’m not a social network research scientist. Maybe I should go back to school and get my Ph.D. in it. I’ve certainly done enough of the research as a viral marketer, but you know what I’ve found, over and over and over again in studying and running experiments on different web platforms to get content to spread? The 15 people thing isn’t true. I don’t think it ever was. I think it was just a dismissive thing the media came up with, and some folks looking to sound like experts on Internet Culture just went along with because saying the media is wrong gets you nowhere.
In order for something to “go viral”, in order for someone who is “Internet Famous” to sustain their existence, they need more than fifteen people to interact with the content they’ve created. EVEN IF we’re talking about something that’s popular for a week or so and then gone forever like Alex From Target, 15 people doesn’t make that happen. Not even 100 people make that happen.
YouTube’s algorithm and Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t trigger if 15 people and only 15 people interact with a piece of content. You know what happens if 15 people interact with it, or maybe even a hundred? In the words of motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river: JACK SQUAT.
And that’s the other thing … I’m not going to brag, because I’m entirely at the mercy of an algorithm myself, but I’ve had individual pieces of content reach over five million people. Five million. You know what the highest rating recently for an episode of Monday Night Raw is? And this is with the understanding that the creative has been pretty terrible? It’s in the threes, as in three million or so. So at what point do we stop referring to things that happen on platforms with mass adoption (not Vine), like YouTube and Facebook? Is that still a niche thing when, theoretically, you’re interacting with five million people? I don’t think so.
So I don’t think this Internet part of Internet Celebrity works. I really don’t. I think that old Hollywood rating system of A list actors and Z-list actors is still very much in effect. And it’s certainly true you can place what we’re calling “Internet Celebrities” at the bottom of that list, but I don’t think the “Internet” qualifier is necessary anymore because the audience reach, if you want to believe the social media metrics, can certainly be argued as qualifying as a mass audience if you know what you’re doing.
Now before you go, “But wait! Doesn’t that prove the power of the Internet as a platform!” It does, sort of. Not in the way the fragmentation people want you to think. For one, because the numbers are essentially bullshit. So are Nielsen Ratings. And that’s the big joke. All the numbers and measurements we’re using to make these statements are sort of bullshit. Not entirely, but almost entirely.
You know what the real crime is among all the people who want to use TV ratings to prove their points about how “the world has changed”? The real crime is that Nielsen has a deeply flawed system and it doesn’t exactly reflect actual viewership. For all we know shows can still be pulling hypothetical M.A.S.H. like numbers, but unless it’s noted by a family with a Nielsen Box or journal, you’re not going to know. We can guess, but we don’t really know. (And this is before getting into the fact that they often have mistakes in their reporting.)
The same deal is true with social media numbers.
Facebook may tell me a post I did reached five million people or more, but “reach” is loosely defined, it just means five million people saw it in the newsfeed, theoretically.
Five million people … around the world. I’m lucky. Most of my audience is American. Of my most active users, the largest group is roughly 2.5 Million Americans, many of whom are based in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston. But I also have 1.5 million Australians (whom I’ve been neglecting and I need to address that), and a half-million people in the UK too. And like with YouTube, although they’ll show you where the views come from, when we discuss those views in the media, we rarely go, “Yeah this thing has been seen a billion times, but most of those views are from China.”
That doesn’t dismiss that the content is popular, but it’s often funny to watch the American media try to explain a “viral video phenomenon” by talking only about the numbers and not WHERE those numbers came from or if they’re even real in the first place. (So if you were ever like, why is this popular? Now you know. Sometimes it ain’t popular in America, we just like to let the media say it is. And sometimes, like with my friends at Blendtec, they lied.)
All of this is a long way of saying that I think our definition of fame is broken. And although in the new book I’m not going to waste any time on the Seth Godin’s of the world (because it doesn’t matter what I say, the agencies and companies are so backwards they still think he and his friends are saying relevant things), I think you should at least here a counter-point to this sky is falling “media fragmentation, shrinking audiences, yadda yadda yadda” nonsense because it’s not true.
A Word To My Marketing Friends
But just to be clear: There’s a difference between EVERYONE and a Mass Audience. A mass audience could be like a 100 million people. EVERYONE could be EVERYONE. That’s a business problem the WWE makes all the time. They’re constantly talking about how everyone is their audience and their show, Monday Night Raw, has something for EVERYONE. But throughout the history of professional wrestling in America, that’s never been true. It’s just a dumb philosophy and honestly it’s why the creative direction of the main show is awful more often than not. So, I’m not suggesting here that suddenly, because the mass audience does exist and you can still reach them, that EVERYONE is now your audience. No. That’s not what I’m saying.
I’m not advocating at all you just start blasting mass audiences with your messaging. It’s a myth, perpetuated by Godin and company, that there was this magical mass audience that was easily swayed by a single commercial. It’s the same myth of the golden age of journalism that a lot of Baby Boomer journalists seems to like to fetishize in light of how dirty and disgusting the new world of journalism seems to be. What their addressing, in a really dumb and superficial way, is a cascading network effect that doesn’t exist anymore. Not because how we consume media has changed, but because as a society we trust fewer people, are less inclined to interact with strangers, the credibility we used to give the government and our parents is a lot less. It was NEVER about the commercials, which is what those guys are trying to tell you. It was about the weight we gave those commercials in our own little social networks. The offline kind. TV was sort of like another person, but now it’s not, not because we’re watching stuff on our iPads, but because we know better than to trust the information presented to us. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s an important one. Don’t let those guys fool you.