As a media practitioner, I've been trained to go to clients with solutions, not problems. Fragmentation -- of media, of audiences and even of communities -- has for many years been seen in media circles as a problem. Declining audience size equals rising costs per medium and/or a heck of a lot more work to aggregate marketing targets.
The last five years have been particularly telling. With digitization at every corner and a plethora of on-demand media in market, the black cloud of increased audience choice has now added increased audience control.
Reactions to the reality have largely been in two camps: the Sky is Falling Camp (whatever will we do?) and the Denial Camp (my audience isn't really shrinking…). Essentially, whatever energy has been expended to actually worry, deny or solve the problem has completely overlooked the fact that it may not be a problem at all.
Indulge me for a moment in an astronomical metaphor.
What we are experiencing in fragmentation is a little like the aftermath in the Big Bang theory. After the "bang," all of the matter in the universe was deconstructed and dispersed. Over time, the pieces re-grouped in new, meaningful ways-- planets, stars, moons, et cetera.
Similarly, the introduction and adoption of digital technologies in our society has effected a deconstruction and dispersion of audiences across channels. The fear among media practitioners evolves from the disorder, the change in how we understand our universe, the media-scape, and the implications on our business models. The opportunity -- in fact, the silver lining -- is in the discovery of new patterns that may ultimately prove more compelling for consumers and more instructive and efficient for advertisers.
Let me put it more simply. Fragmentation is just an opportunity to re-aggregate audiences in more meaningful ways.
As I graze the media trades of late I am consistently struck by the fact that social networks like MySpace and user-generated content sites like YouTube are lauded and sought-after because they are either beginning to amass large audiences or they represent the latest, cool destination for the young and hip. This valuation, while true to the currencies we've learned to seek, misses the point entirely.
It's not the size or hip-ness of the channel that should be valued today-- it's the insight we can learn from its members who share photos, list hobbies, critique films and yes, even name brands, as personal markers of identity. Unlocking the patterns in these textual and multi-media expressions are much richer ways of aggregating and dimensioning consumer targets than our fallback age and sex designations.
Six years ago, Harvard professor Robert Putnam wrote a book called "Bowling Alone" that chronicled a steady membership decline in organizations within our real world communities-- PTAs, unions, sports leagues, et cetera. It's hard not to draw the parallels between Putnam's research and the emergence of phenomena like MySpace.
The fabric of real communities in American life is slowly being rebuilt with virtual threads in online communities. Those threads are the building blocks of a new social ecology in which brands can both derive critical insight on consumer experience as well as serve as markers of identity in both the real and virtual landscapes. In combination with behavioral targeting techniques, these kind of data form living consumer profiles that can be mapped in digital media and mirrored in traditional media.
At a time when marketers and agencies invest heavily in convincing consumers to talk to us, perhaps the richest field of insight is in what consumers are already freely expressing every day in the virtual world. Data mining, behavioral targeting and search algorithms, in isolation, are simply pre-cursor techniques to understand, locate and connect with consumers. In tandem with ethnographers and social scientists, these techniques begin to reveal the patterns in the perceived chaos of fragmentation, and make one-to-some marketing strategies both viable and attainable.
And that's a silver lining I'm excited to explore.