Audience Fragmentation

The FiRST Driver of Change in the marketing landscape

The disintegration of consumer audiences into smaller clusters has led to the breakdown of mass communication and helped produce a new wave of marketing.

In part one of our series on the changing landscape of marketing, we discuss the seismic shift in what constitutes a brand’s “audience,” and we talk about what brands need to do to make sure they are reaching multiple audiences on multiple channels.

THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF MASS COMMUNICATION

In the old days, marketing was a single-channel, single-audience, and often single-message proposition. A brand had “an audience,” marketers created ads for that audience, and they usually used a singular vehicle, or channel, to reach the audience—TV, radio, print ads, newspaper, or billboards.

This was life in the era of mass communication, and for brands it offered many advantages. For starters, brands could build awareness at scale. If a brand ran a TV spot during The Beverly Hillbillies in the 1960s, they could count on around 57 million viewers, about 30 percent of the country’s population. The same went for newspapers—at the height of newspaper circulation from the mid-1960s through to the 1980s, more than 60 million Americans subscribed to a newspaper. So if your brand had a new product to promote, or a new brand message to put in front of consumers, the solution was obvious: make an ad, pay the network or newspaper, and voilà, an “audience” of millions were now your potential consumers.

Mass communication offered another advantage: audiences were essentially self-segmenting. If you were a beauty brand and you wanted to get your products in front of women, you advertised during soap operas, which were created and paid for by a variety of Procter & Gamble brands. If you wanted to sell expensive sports cars, you advertised in magazines that catered to wealthy men—Town & Country, Forbes, Robb Report. Sure, brands couldn’t precisely attribute sales to these ad expenditures, but it worked well enough that the system continued to flourish for decades.

Finally, mass communication was one-directional—there is no conversation with the consumer. Brands didn’t have to worry about the sort of social media boycotts and backlashes that now arise daily—consumer pushback existed only in the form of declining revenues, and then brands could just fire their agency and move on to the next one. More importantly, brands had absolute control over their messages. So if Motorola ran a print ad that sold the idea that TVs were great for kids, they could make their pitch, as silly as it might have been, without social media commentary or an angry comments section.

Now, all that has changed.

What Happened to My Audience?

What we used to think of as “the audience” now consists of many smaller audiences, each with its own wants and needs. If you’re the beauty brand whose audience used to be “women,” what does that really mean now? Teenaged women? Middle-aged women? Older women? Women with dry skin or oily skin? Women who only buy organic products, or women who shop exclusively online? Women who shop based on price, or women who shop based on the recommendations of influencers? And for each of these sub-audiences, there is an entire ecosystem of brands, blogs, Facebook groups, and e-commerce platforms.

How did audiences get so fragmented?

1). The Internet

Just because this answer is obvious doesn’t make it any less profound or any less revolutionary. Seemingly overnight, a new marketing channel was introduced that offered consumers endless choices. If a consumer had been loyal to a brand, but they were no longer satisfied with a product, they could find a competitor’s product in just a few clicks. And if they wanted to know if the product actually worked, they no longer looked to the brand for validation; instead, thousands of consumer reviews were now a quick Google search away.

This infinite array of choices allowed “the audience” of consumers to fragment into smaller “audiences.” A good example of this phenomenon is the fragmentation of the hiking gear and apparel category. For decades, this category was static, and it was dominated by a handful of major retailers. Now the category has fragmented into dozens of smaller audiences—lightweight backpackers, day hikers, peak baggers, long-distance hikers—and each of these audiences has its own world of websites, subreddits, blogs, and social media influencers. The result of this fragmentation is that outdoor brands can no longer market to the “hiker” audience. In order to be effective, they must understand the wants and needs of each sub-audience, craft messages, content, and products that resonate with each, and deliver them to the online spaces where each sub-audience lives.

And because the internet allows for infinite expansion, each of these sub-audiences has the ability to fragment into even smaller clusters of fanatics—there are dozens of websites and chat boards dedicated to just peak baggers in the Adirondacks, for example—and the brands that want to market to them will have to follow them deeper down internet rabbit holes.

Brands must understand the wants and needs of each audience, craft resonant content, and then deliver that content where each sub-audience lives.

2). Social Media

Social media is the catalyst for the most seismic communication shift in our history. It has been, and continues to be, one of the biggest disruptors for consumers, marketers, and brands alike. And it’s also one of the greatest opportunities for all three groups.

It’s impossible to mention all the ways social media has changed everything, but one of its most disruptive contributions is giving startup brands a way to build a direct-to-consumer business by identifying, reaching, and engaging sub-audiences in a way that was never possible before. The DTC furniture brand Article is a great example of this. By targeting Instagram users with an affinity for furniture and design, they built a brand out of aspirational imagery and design-focused messaging on a single social media platform.

But social media also presents challenges to brands and marketers. The most foundational of these challenges is figuring out which social media platforms to prioritize, i.e., on which platforms your audiences spend their time, learning how to speak to them in the language of that platform, and then engaging them in a two-way conversation. Social media doesn’t allow for one-size-fits-all brand messages—social media demands that brands craft different messages, each delivered in a unique voice and tone, to each audience, on each platform.

Mobile devices account for more than half of all web traffic

3). Mobile Devices

The fragmenting effects of the internet and social media have been exacerbated by the ubiquity of mobile devices—more than half of all web traffic now comes via mobile devices. Mobile devices also add another layer of complexity: not only do brands have to reach and engage multiple audiences and sub-audiences on web and social media platforms, they now also have to provide seamless mobile versions of both.

The more profound fragmenting effect of mobile devices is that consumers now carry their niche communities with them at all times. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, consumers may have segmented themselves into smaller audiences at home on their desktop computers, but the rest of everyday life—at work, at the grocery, at the bar—forced consumers who belonged to various sub-audiences to mingle, which allowed mass media to still wield some power. Now, even if a consumer is having a cross-audience conversation at a bar, they are also likely engaged in three or four conversations with members of their own sub-audience via text or mobile social media apps.

Truth: Fake news had greater reach and engagement than real news during the 2016 election.

4). Media Bubbles and Disinformation

The internet, social media, and mobile devices have enabled the creation of media echo chambers, within which disinformation is enabled to run wild. When disinformation is weaponized to pit one audience against another, it pushes more and more consumers into tighter and tighter clusters.

According to a 2017 study by the Brookings Institution, the 20 most popular fake news stories that circulated during the 2016 election generated 8.7 million shares, reactions, and comments, while the 20 most popular real news stories generated only 7.4 million shares, reactions, and comments.

How does this relate to brands and their audiences? Even if a brand spends all the time and money it takes to build equity with its audiences and sub-audiences via web, social media, and mobile, all of that could be destroyed overnight by bots and trolls spreading disinformation about a product.

How [B]RIGHT Can Help

At [B]RIGHT Brand Performance Group, we help our clients navigate all these changes and challenges by applying our channel expertise to their brands, categories, and industries.

1). Brand Positioning and Go-To-Market Strategies

After a market analysis from [B]RIGHT, we can make sure your brand is speaking to the audiences that represent the biggest opportunity for growth. We will then put together a go-to-market strategy that allows your brand to activate around those opportunities.

2). Audience segmentation and Channel Prioritization

[B]RIGHT will ensure that your brand’s channel efforts are efficient and optimized. Prioritizing your audience segments by opportunity is the first step to addressing the many recent changes in the marketing landscape.

3). MultiChannel Planning and UX Strategy

Brands that exhibit fragmented communication and inconsistent brand expression will be less effective than brands that have a clear vision, brand identity, and way of communicating. These cross-channel inconsistencies lead to less impactful brand impressions, diminished brand awareness, and ultimately to decreased brand affinity. [B]RIGHT can help your brand speak to all of its audiences and sub-audiences while still telling a cohesive brand story with consistent, user-friendly platforms.

How well does your brand know its audiences? Do you know which new audiences represent the biggest opportunities for growth? Do you know how to prioritize your communications so that those growth audiences are at the core of your marketing?

Give [B]RIGHT a call, and we can work together to figure out which audiences your brand should spend time and money targeting.

Read part two, on media proliferation, of our series on the changing landscape of marketing.