Thursday, November 19

Unifying Topics: In An Era Of Infinite Choices

The most blatant mistake being made by public relations and communication professionals focusing on the increasingly crowded space of social media is employing a methodology that can be best described as the last remnant of mass media.

The tactics are as simple as delivering a product, service, or brand message to as many people as possible as many times as possible. The outcomes are sales calls, junk mail, media pitch lists, and spam. The objective is to stand out in the onslaught of useless communication. The measurement of success is confined to playing a game of eroding percentages.

Ten years ago, a 10 percent response rate was the mark of success. Last year, a two precent response rate is the new high water mark. And more recently, some organizations have told me they'll take one percent any day of the week. The fix remains the same. Buy a bigger list to offset the diminishing return. Except...

Mass Media Has Given Way To Infinite Choice

Social media empowered consumers to trade in mass communication in favor of infinite choices. The consequence of this transition was profound, but not in the way most people think.

Mass media, which was largely ushered in by Baby Boomers in the 1950s, has had a much shorter life cycle than objective journalism, which was largely the advent of Walter Lippman attempting to professionalize journalists in the 1920s. As a footnote, it might be important to mention mass communication has a longer life cycle, taking form in the late 1800s.

Although most people conclude the Internet is a new medium within the greater context of mass media (including myself on occasion), it is more appropriately defined as an environment that has accelerated the adoption of infinite choice much faster than cable and satellite television.

Infinite choices are profound in that they move consumer thinking to the era that predates mass media, objective journalism, and mass communication not because of limited accessibility but through a means of self-selected exposure.

For example, if a consumer is faced with a choice of more than 10,000 local and national news outlets, they might pick three or five or ten (depending on their information tolerances). The impact increases the competition exponentially, forces specialization, and fragments audiences to such a degree that the entire mass media model crashes.

The tragedy is that despite knowing this, organizations are attempting to plant various mass media models in an environment of infinite choices. The result is increasing the number of their competitors to include not only direct competitors but every company on the Internet vying for fans (people cannot and will not friend 100,000 product pages), forcing them to amplify their message, and increase the risk of consumer brand fatigue.

Infinite Choice Requires A Better Model Than Mass Media

While there have been many early attempts to develop infinite choice tactics, most of them are nothing more than an attempt to modify the mass media model. Ergo: influencer targeting is nothing more than replacing one objective journalist with people who are more malleable (Edleman) and crowd sourcing is nothing more than an attempt to convince consumers en masse that they are stakeholders much in the same way vanity poetry press scams made poets out of everyone (Jarvis).

Neither construct breaks away from a mass media model. Neither is sustainable nor scalable as consumers have a finite amount of time. The same can be said for equally flawed models that include leveraging employees or elevating individual quasi-brand celebrities. All of it, not surprisingly, is mass media without the benefit of objectivity.

While not all of it can be solved within the confines of a single post, we do know that organizations operating within an environment of infinite choices have to remove degrees of separation between their products, services, and brands and the consumers they hope to reach. By removing degrees of separation, I do not mean leveraging employees and product fans to monetarily or emotionally blackmail family and friends to peddle products as some sort of multi-level marketing scheme without the benefit of revenue.

What I mean is that organizations have to develop points of communication that consumers can selectively connect to beyond the buzz of 'buy our product,' as illustrated by the top model in the illustration. (You can find a larger image of the Topic Unification Model right here.) Companies developing social media programs have to provide content that gives various publics different reasons to connect.

For example, if we apply the Topic Unification Model to fashion, a fashion designer not only has to talk about the product, but also about industry trends, points of inspiration, the fashion industry as a whole, and so on and so forth. Doing so allows different publics to find self-selected value from the online communication provided, and allows each designer to customize their topical context so that it reinforces the preferred company brand.

Individuals have been very effective applying this as a strategy of sorts (consciously and subconsciously). They attract friends, followers, and readers because those consumers connect with them as parents, photographers, communicators, political viewpoints, type of drinks they prefer, and so on and so forth. These conversations and connections have almost nothing to do with their professions.

Unfortunately, their success in selling personality like this sometimes leads to the mistaken belief that personality can supplant organizational communication. In reality, organizational communication still requires some semblance of an organization. Consumers don't just want to know what Jane Doe thinks about a complaint (despite how empathetic Jane Doe might be). They want to know what the organization will do about it.

To that end, organizations hoping to integrate social media are better served by broadening their communication from a narrowly defined product (can of soda) into a communication model that includes any number of topics that are much more interesting.

While the communication still needs to be managed within a context (soda marketers don't need to offer opinions about toilet tissue makers), broadening the scope of communication to a select number of related topics opens up connections with consumers who might not care about a specific product today. It also provides a better contrast among competitors, ensuring people will become engaged when they are interested as opposed to when it is convenient for a marketing accountability report.


Kevin Goodman on 11/19/09, 5:31 PM said...

Rich, that’s an interesting and substantial post.

New Media is collaborative and it is prevailing so what you say makes sense…but I am thinking that change needs to manifest at the very premise of a brands position and strategy. Maybe brands need to reinvent their core philosophies to survive the economic metamorphosis that seems to be real and permanent.

I think you characterize this economic metamorphosis pretty well. Not only is it about endless choices – I was watching Chris Anderson on Charlie Rose the other day talk about his book which evidently claims ‘free’ is the way of the future. He is essentially saying that competition makes monetization challenging for web services and companies will have to look for alternative venues to capitalize. Free is here to stay….so what do businesses do?

But that is just one perspective. Economics (online and offline) are changing in many different ways and I think you are visionary for ascribing so much importance to interactive media.

Rich on 11/29/09, 10:47 AM said...


You raise a substantive point. The entire mass media model is flawed and, as a result, the thinking needs to be overhauled for organizations hoping to survive and reach smaller clusters of consumers with specific interest points. It needs to be overhauled at the core, beginning with a reevaluation of the company and its position within the world and its place among competitors.

It's easier for me to consider this because, long ago, I adopted an idea first presented by Phil Dusenberry, former chairman of BBDO, who proposed "Brand is the relationship between a product and its customer.” Thus, neither own the brand, but there is a mutual investment.

Simply put, if consumers don't embrace the preferred brand, then the company is probably not operating within its brand either.

The challenge most communicators seem to run into is the concept of "either ... or," which, in other worlds, is nothing more than the classic trap of humankind's duality. Ergo, sometimes the answer is not whether something needs salt or pepper, but rather how much of each.

All my best,


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