Here’s the theory: Mass is gone. Niche is all that exists anymore.
We know that traditional advertising was built on the idea of mass. We know that the web has ushered in the era of niche. I’m just not sure we realize the extent to which it has happened.
When you talk about mass, you’re talking impressions. But the web regularly shows us that a few quality impressions are frequently far more valuable than many more broadly targeted ones. It’s easy to see online. The web works with niche messaging because it is so intimate. User preferences and actions are an individual thing. When your ad is served, you’re dealing with a single user’s mindset at a single moment. A niche of one. But the reality is, you’re dealing with that same niche of one when a person sees your billboard from her car, or your spot from her couch. In the past, we never really thought about it that way. I’m not sure consumers did, either. But now I’m convinced they actually, actively, do.
Now consumers have a much more acute understanding of the power they have, in fact, always wielded. Now they have better tools to put that power into practice. And with their more acute understanding of the situation, they’re not afraid to use those tools. Personal attitudes toward messaging, brands, and products reflect an individual’s ability to customize a personal world on command. If your message doesn’t fit perfectly, they look somewhere else for one that does, because they know it’s a click away. Or they make their own out of parts and pieces of yours, and others, because they can.
When most CEOs were teenagers, depending on the current age of the CEO, teenagers listened to Elvis, or maybe the Beatles. Their parents did not. The division was generational — demographic. When I was a teenager, you either listened to rock, or to disco, but not both. Some demographics involved, but some psychographics, too. Now, defining a musical genre that encompasses the whole of the group called teenagers is impossible. There are too many. Pick any one, and you’ll be right for some, and wrong for more. And demographics rarely give you an accurate picture of the true emotional motivators that define those myriad tastes.
There are, still, Mass events. The Super Bowl qualifies. Kind of. Because how it’s experienced is far more a collection of separate, but related, niches than a single mass. There are those who interact online, and those who just watch the old fashioned way. There are fans of the teams, fans of the sport, and fans of the particular game. There are those who only care about the commercials. Those who only come for the beer. Those who forget it’s happening, those who actively abstain, and the list goes on and on. Each niche is ripe for its own distinct message, if we can deliver.
There are viral hits. And there are still popular trends. But it seems, to me at least, that the numbers are getting smaller, and the durations shorter. Further evidence of niche elements making their own decisions apart from the crowd. Let’s remember — the wisdom of the crowd is very, very different from the action of the mob. As consumers embrace more of their individual power, mob action becomes more and more diluted.
Traditional media, built on mass, is declining. Even on the web, display is taking a hit. And of the tactics that serve marketing messages on the web, display is, by far, the closest thing there is to mass. Conversely, search is strong. And social media is the current darling. Not because those things are new. They’re not, anymore. But because they are the most intimate. The most personal. The most customizable. The most niche.
What this means, I think, for creatives — and for the brand personalities they help create — is hard work, and more of it. It’s no longer enough to establish a brand personality that is expressed the same way everywhere it appears. It now must have multiple elements of nuance – to speak to the sometimes small, but never insignificant, cultural nuances that separate the niches within the broader target. It means more variations on a theme. And it means working with a deeper understanding of real people, and the very real differences and individualities that separate them. It’s like the difference between gardening and farming. More intensive labor to produce more satisfying results.
Find related niches, and it’s possible to build a coalition that represents the significant numbers that are attractive to clients used to mass. To continue the analogy, a number of gardens can produce the same quantities as a farm. But again, to retain the quality of the garden, the labor is more intense.
Technology will continue to enhance our ability to deliver custom messages to smaller and smaller niches of our audience. Creatives must learn how to address the niche-scaled variations of cultural preferences in the messages they create. It’s critical to understand that, while everyone in the target base may, in fact, like the product — each member of the target base likes it for a different reason. By speaking more intimately to the niche, you form a more emotional connection.
Mass communication is steadily taking on most aspects of interpersonal communication. The cultural groups we’re creating for are getting smaller and smaller, even as the brands we represent get larger. As creatives, we have to recognize that, and address it in the work. We may be on a path that will someday lead us to the ability to deliver individual messages to individuals. For now, though, the creative unit of measure is the niche.