Networks vs Mass Communications: Using Disruption to Compete

oreilleBased on numerous executive conversations I’ve had over the past few months, I’m struck by the staying power of 20th century “communications” rules, which still govern many brands today. Therefore, I’ll reveal hidden assumptions that lurk in too many boardrooms in the desire that you root them out before your rivals, so you can outmaneuver them before they disrupt you.

20th century success formulas offer very thin ice on which to skate, and many brands will have a cold awakening. Periods of disruption make assumptions lethal because disruptions change past rules or invalidate them completely, which leads executives and brand stewards astray. In this brief treatement of a complex subject, I’ll show why executives unwittingly sabotage social business’s network-based communications by using mass communications principles.

Mass Communications

During the 20th century mass communications age, firms and executives learned several “success patterns” that served them well—but these assumptions look dangerously out of date today:

  • The firm/producer/star/author relates directly to a large audience. No audience-to-audience interaction.
  • Content is optimized to audience size; the larger the audience, the more general the content, so it can have broad appeal.
  • Content is experienced passively by “viewers,” “consumers” or “readers.”
  • Calls to action are reserved for commercial interactions (i.e. seeing ads and clicking or calling).
  • The Network is largely static.. and defined and controlled by a few large players.

By the way, I do not mean to imply that mass communications is dead; but it is no longer the default; it will coexist with network communications (below).

Network Communications

  • The firm/producer/star/author relates indirectly to a large audience. There can be extensive “audience”-to-“audience” interaction.
  • Content is optimized to audience interest; the more specific the content [in its relationship to the “audience”], the more access gatekeepers give the firm/producer/star to the network.
  • Content is likely to be experienced actively; a portion of “the audience” is commenting, interacting and communicating. A larger portion of the audience “participates” vicariously. Participation boosts credibility.
  • Calls to action are numerous and diverse; they include commercial (click on promotions) and non-commercial (support/participation). They often emerge spontaneously.
  • The Network is largely dynamic, uncontrolled.. and influenced by its own key nodes, who are constantly evolving.

The lack of control is a big turnoff for brand stewards, who prefer the old way, which was more predictable. Sorry, it’s largely over.

The Disruption

Most participants/audience/viewers/readers don’t realize it consciously, but they are the gatekeepers of their networks. When they experience “content” online, they make the decision of whether to open up their networks to the content by sharing it, commenting on it or other social actions. Social actions require effort, time and risk, so people usually make that risk/reward decision carefully, albeit unconsciously. Therefore, there is a bar that content creators have to surpass to win access to participants’ networks.

Although network size varies according to myriad factors, let’s use some round numbers to illustrate its disruptive potential.

  • [Mass] A content creator may reach one million viewers through a niche television show; this will require sharing much/most of the revenue with the network because its owner controls access; related to this, it will take months to negotiate all the details of the deal (that would be fast).
  • [Network] Let’s assume participants/audience have a network size of 100; that would be low but let’s use it for round numbers. The content creator may reach one million viewers online by inspiring 10,000 participants to initiate social actions, whether forwarding a link, commenting, voting up/down or other. This can happen instantly, and for free, although that rarely happens. In most cases, the creator develops a relationship with participants over time, so their commitment and social actions constantly increase in depth and number.
  • What’s different is, in the network model, the creator must inspire the participant, wow them to action. This is completely different from the mass pattern in which the focus is general appeal and designed not to offend. This represents a profound difference.

Fail Point

The egregious blunder committed by 95% of brands is that they use social technologies to “practice” mass communications. They don’t understand the disruption, so they rarely earn interaction and win few social actions. They don’t even know what they are missing: since brand marketing executives and other stakeholders don’t understand the network’s potential, they don’t appreciate that they are failing to activate it because their competitors aren’t either.

Understanding network access is the motherlode that will be mined by the few who understand the dynamic and activate it.

How to Activate the Network

  • It is easy to talk about “inspiring” people, but it takes skill and work to do it consistently. You must know your [network] “participant” far better than you ever knew your [mass] audience. To do so, you need a different depth and kind of research as a starting point, followed by close observation and experimentation to refine your approach, which is based on real interaction rather than synthesized market research.
  • By understanding the people to whose networks you want to earn access, you offer them content that is highly relevant to them in a powerful and often personal way; you directly help them to achieve an important outcome. “Nice” doesn’t earn market access, retweets or Facebook mentions. The best content appeals to an important part of participants’ networks (and therefore makes them look good when they share it).
  • You stop restricting yourself to appealing to a large general audience (you’ve heard the one about pleasing all the people all the time, right? ;^)
  • Another game-changer: the most inspiring “content” is often individualized interaction, not mass distributed images, videos, etc. That means interacting with people. Before you reject this out of hand, remember that most social platforms automatically broadcast their members’/users’ interactions to their networks. By interacting with the few, you often reach their networks automatically, although you won’t readily see this.

Often, conversation is the content because individual attention trumps undifferentiated mass distributed content almost every time.

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