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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Can social media become a mass media?

My short answer is “Yes, if it continues to evolve”.

But there are numerous challenges to overcome within this evolution process.

SIDENOTE: Throughout this blog, I’ll be referring to social media in the singular. I know that technically media denotes plurality, but, to me at least, phrases such as “social media aren’t mass” sounds weird. Well, weirder than “social media isn’t mass” anyway.

Isn’t social media mass already?

I may have already lost a few readers by this point, who refuse to believe my basic premise that social media isn’t mass.

And they will have numbers to back up their spluttering, incredulous rage:

These numbers sound big. They are big. But they aren’t mass.

This is where semantics get involved.

Firstly, for social media I’m referring to platforms or websites whose primary aim is to connect people and facilitate communication – such as social networks, blogs and forums. I’m not considering websites with social widgets or functionality added – such as the comments section on a newspaper website.

Secondly, I believe there is a big difference between a popular media and a mass media. The definition used on Wikipedia is “a section of the media specifically designed to reach a large audience”.

From that definition, and from my general perceptions, I infer that for media to be mass it requires inclusiveness.

And despite the large numbers, social media is not inclusive.

The Diffusion of Innovations

I reference Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations model in a previous post on the iPad. I will go into it in a bit more detail here.

Rogers posited that, within the population, there are five types of person, each with a different relationship with and attitude towards new innovations. The five types progress along a time series

  • The innovator will try something for the sake of it being new
  • The early adopter will try something before most people, but only when he or she is confident that it will be worth it
  • The early majority (or mainstream) come into the frame when they see a new innovation is gaining in popularity and thus must be worth adopting
  • The late majority see a new innovation has proved itself to be worthwhile, and thus they try it
  • The laggards are resistant to new technologies, but will try something when there is little or no alternative

Rogers estimated the proportions in the population to be as laid out in the diagram below:

At Essential Research, we have measured to the population in order to calibrate and weight our data for the Essential Eye, our ongoing exploration of digital media usage and attitudes. Our figures are:

  • Innovators – 6%
  • Early adopters – 11%
  • Early majority – 26%
  • Late majority – 32%
  • Laggards – 25%

If Facebook has 23m UK users in a population of 62m people, that would place it firmly into the early majority stage of diffusion.

Leaving aside my doubts that this figure constitutes 23m unique individuals within the UK, and that as marketers or researchers we are usually (but not always) confining ourselves to adults, I believe social media take-up will shortly plateau unless some big changes are made

Why majority take-up isn’t inevitable

Few, if any, innovations ever reach 100% penetration. There will always be rejectors that go out of their way to avoid certain technologies.

Digital media has the additional hurdle of scepticism among a minority – whether cost, fear of privacy, shame over incomprehension or a belief that they can live their lives quite happily without the internet, thank you, there are a significant minority that never have, and perhaps never will, use the internet.

Anyway, I digress. The main point to note is that early adopters are DIFFERENT to late adopters.

How are they different? They tend to be

  • Younger
  • Higher social class, and more educated
  • More disposable income
  • Greater interest/proximity to science and technology
  • Greater opinion leadership
  • More social

This may seem obvious, but it is vitally important to reflect upon.

The demographic differences aren’t such a huge deal since people age and earn more over time, and it means the user base will always skew to the more commercially attractive audiences. Essential Research Brandheld data bears this out – 64% of all users of social networks via a mobile are aged 16-34 and three quarters are on a contract phone.

However, the attitudinal differences could be a major barrier to social media uptake.

Later adopters advocate things to a lesser degree and are less social. They have smaller friendship groups and are less likely to want to meet new people.

The network effects become less powerful. Latecomers see less benefit. Their investment into the software will bear less reward.

And this is assuming that later adopters can be sold on the idea to begin with. This is not guaranteed.

The mainstream prioritise different benefits

The proposition that convinced the earlier users to adopt social networks will probably not work for the latecomers.

Earlier adopters saw their friends on the site. They saw the software made it easier to keep track of their large and disparate friendship groups. They got to grips with the technology quickly, and found it easy to adapt as the social networks change to accommodate a larger user base.

Yet even in the early majority, we are witnessing problems with adoption. Examples include loud protests over redesigns to Facebook or people getting confused by a simple error within Google’s algorithm.

Two things need to fundamentally change in order convince the mainstream to trial, let alone permanently adopt, social media.

  1. A return to simplicity: Feature creep is a well document problem with iterated software. The earlier adopters – the more vocal power users – may appreciate greater customisation but it raises the barriers to entry for newcomers. The longer they leave it, the harder it is for them to figure out how to use these services. And the greater the chance they abandon them. Apple may have beautifully designed products, but the simple and intuitive interface is the most important part of the design. The core social media service should be simple, with additional functionality optional for those comfortable – the Firefox model, if you will. A quick fix would be for Facebook to offer its lite version as a default.
  2. A realignment in promotion of benefits: Mainstream and late adopters are less inclined to experiment. The benefits to using social networks need to be immediately obvious and tangible. A benefit either gives you something – entertainment or information – or lets you save something – time, money or effort. The more averse to new technology someone is, the harder these benefits are to communicate. Currently, there is plenty of room for platforms, developers and marketers to improve in this area

How social networks can become more attractive

Conventional wisdom might say that the less affluent among us have more time on their hands. 8 hour shifts, no ski-ing holidays in Chamonix etc. They have the social surplus that Clay Shirky talks about. And we’re not expecting them to create a new Wikipedia, just to engage in the social media space.

But, given the current platform, not gonna happen. They will be more likely to stick to their gin and television.

What do people gain from social media that they cannot get elsewhere? Why should they divert their time from their favourite TV shows, or from housework or other chores, in order to “join the conversation”?

Where are the tangible benefits?

Well, they may already be there. They just need to be communicated

  • Facebook and Twitter are building on the fact that they are increasingly responsible for traffic directed to major news sites. Conversely, despite being unfashionable, the portals are still popular. This is primarily because they offer a single place to get all desired information. If Facebook or another social network desire to become a portal, they need to contain, or at least link to, all relevant information for that person in a similar manner to the portals
  • Even if people aren’t social themselves, they may still like to read or hear the opinions of others on topics or areas that interest them. A comparison could be made to radio phone-ins, but with a criteria of entry based on interest rather than geography
  • Vouchering schemes are highly discriminatory, but cost/cost saving is eye-catching. People will gravitate towards the discounts
  • I really like Doc Searls’ idea of Vendor Relationship Management, where potential customers recruit providers instead of companies advertising to potential consumers. This clearly represents an easier route to deciding upon a major purchase, and is far preferable to disruptive advertising or poor performing display advertising.

The final point brings us on to the business model.

The challenges for a successful business

It is one thing to succeed in bringing in an audience. It is another thing to successfully run that business. To my mind, there are three major challenges to overcome before this space can be fully monetized

  1. Competition – in this instance, competition can be a bad thing. Maintaining a presence on a social network requires a major investment of time and effort. People are reticent to needlessly duplicate this. I believe that the low distribution barriers and start-up costs in the digital space mean that there should be no concerns over monopoly activity. Google, Amazon and eBay have all succeeded in this position to date, and there is no reason why Facebook cannot . I see no issue with them maintaining that (sound business strategy permitting, which is where Myspace fell down), with specialist networks operating in its orbit. If I am right, Google Buzz will swiftly fail
  2. Evolution without natural selection – I have quite a large problem with Google Buzz. Dumping a new social network on a group of people without it evolving from innovators downwards is a recipe for rejection. Without any proven benefits among even a minority of users, there is no reason for the average user to adopt it. It could be argued that the average Gmail user is savvier than those of competitor services, but there are as yet no clear benefits to using it. I’ve personally removed it from my Gmail, and it will remain turned off until these benefits become apparent. Throughout the evolution of social networks, there will always be the tension between placating the current users while reaching out to the sceptics. This requires a careful balancing act between keeping pace with the ambitions and needs of the power users, and the more conservative use of the later adopters
  3. The commercial model – there are many potential routes to take – basic display/interruptive advertising, VRM, subscription or integration with search to give just four examples – but the commercial model for ensuring the success of the social media space is still unclear. There may be a growing number of social media agencies in the space, but until they offer real, workable proposals for a) monetizing the current user base and b) attracting a mass audience, the prospects for mainstream success remain limited. It is therefore in their interests to do this, otherwise they will remain a niche proposition at threat from integrated campaigns from digital agencies, not to mention full service agencies.


Will social media become mass? Ultimately, I think so.But not in its current guise.

Social media is currently geared towards the technologically savvy. This is fine. But if the platform wishes to mature, then it is necessary to change.

The focus needs to move away from the exploration of something new towards the benefits people receive. This is achieved through highlighting the gains – information and entertainment – and the savings – in time, effort and money. Running alongside this is the need to identify and promote a sustainable commercial model – not an easy task.

Yet, to revisit Rogers’ model, an individual needs to trial something before they can fully adopt it. While social networks are free to join, the registration page still represents a barrier. Keeping most of the functionality behind the log-in is analogous to a paywall. It is hidden away. It is exclusive to users.

This isn’t a trait of a mass media. Social media needs to evolve further before it can be considered one.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ejpphoto/2633923684/

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11 Responses

  1. […] Can social media become a mass media? […]

  2. […] Can social media become a mass media? […]

  3. Wow. So nice to meet you and your encyclopedic mind. You raise numerous insights, my favorites being (1) social media adoption by everyone is not inevitable, (2) social tools are too complex and must eventually be simplified, and (3) there is as of yet no commercial model to pay for all this.

    My bet: We’re in the very early days of social media evolution, similar to early railroads that had different engine types and track gauges, and eventually standards will settle down.

    I think social media will soon be mass media and will be adopted by everyone … because competitive evolution will move the tools from complexity to simplicity, and SM aspects will begin to be embedded in everyday machines that people use (just as the lamp on your desk plugs into electricity). The forces driving this:

    1. Humans long for connectivity, regardless of technology
    At its core, social media is email with better graphics and layered access. Email was adopted by the masses because it is the mental equivalent of an internal combustion engine-powered car — automobiles changed our abilities to travel so people have 40-mile commutes instead of 1-mile walks, and electronic communications has extended our abilities to hold more relationships at longer distances. Humans are insatiably social creatures, and the power of connecting with 1,500 people instead of Robin Dunbar’s 150 is too tempting for most people to pass it by.

    2. All devices will improve connectivity
    Social media will scale not because everyone will learn Twitter, but because all the device makers in the world will try to plug SM features into consumers’ existing lives. The very version-creep that at first can be so annoying (my camera has a video cam?) eventually becomes useful (who doesn’t like GPS systems with traffic updates?). When cameras can upload photos directly to Facebook with a click, grandmothers will want in.

    3. Social graphs are a valuable asset
    The truth is both consumers and companies are building something new of value — a network of broader connections centered around each individual. Individuals find this first tempting and then addicting; it’s nearly impossible to walk away from a broader community once you are the center. And companies will want to tap this asset for analytics, customer service or marketing. As these assets build, competitive innovation will find new ways to leverage them, creating a virtuous cycle of growing social media use.

    4. Consumers take media habits with them as they age
    Younger demos who lead social media adoption today will be seniors 50 years from now. Just as the average U.S. user of video games is now about 34, the unstoppable tide of demos aging will pull SM use into the masses eventually.

    Human desire, simple connected devices, and networks of value will drive adoption. Social media at that point will just be part of media. Connectivity will join broadcast. And when we’re all there, we’ll likely look back at tweets as an arcane coding prototype similar to MS-DOS for running computers.

  4. Hi Ben, thanks for the kind words. You make some great points, particularly in your allusions of social software becoming pervasive across all devices. Nike+ and eco:drive are just two early examples of how these tools can enrich our lives. The challenge is getting those sceptics to adopt them – it almost has to be by stealth. They end up using it without realising it.

    In Brandheld, real time traffic updates was the service that had most interest in – and there was little difference between current and non users of the mobile internet. The holy grail is that people are accessing these tools without knowing it is the internet, or social media. It is just another tool helping them achieve a task.


  5. One point that you don’t address is the idea of “dis-adopters”; I think (“social media suicides” aside) we haven’t really seen any significant trends of truly opting-out of the “social media” world- but on the other hand, there is the act of drifting out of one network and into another. (Such as the MySpace>Facebook drift in the US, or Bebo>Facebook in Ireland— or the move of time spent on IM/email/photo sharing sites towards Facebook…)

    Perhaps the friction between sharing everything openly with your friends on Facebook and the growing numbers of parents/uncles/aunts etc. will lead to some sort of shift to a new social network. (Maybe the cool kids have already left, and us marketers won’t know about it until it’s yesterday’s news…)

    But the other point I’d make is that if and when Facebook does reach the “late adopters” stage, will it really be a mass media, going back to your Wikipedia definition? Will anyone (other than Facebook themselves, with a broadcast message like the ones they communicated their revised privacy policies with) ever be able to reach that large audience in the way that you can with an outdoor or TV media campaign? Will a homepage takeover equivalent ever be possible?

    Because if you can’t do that but you call it a “mass media”… well, so is email, or the telephone, or direct mail. And the whole point of social media (in the “Media” sense) is that it’s so personalised or targeted (depending on your perspective…)

    So I’d say that Social Media will never be mass media— even if everyone on the planet signed up for an account. But that’s really an aside to the good points that you make.


  6. Hi Simon,

    Interesting post, i’ll admit I was lost in places 🙂 but coming from an advertising background I’m interested in understanding what you regard as “mass media”.

    TV for example is probably the most widely known “mass media” in the communications industry, but is also a platform. Digitally I would say the internet is it equivalent. I have no idea what the internet penetration is in the UK, 70-80%? but certainly enough to be mass, at least in the sense of a platform.

    A sub category of TV might be Pay TV, Sky for example, what does that have, 8-9 million subscribers? Is that still a mass medium? I’m sure any communications professional would treat it that way, but according to Rogers its still in the early adopter stage of its life-cylce.

    So to Social Media, even if we single out Facebook as a sub sub category, with social media being the sub category as Pay TV is to TV you cite 23 million users in the UK alone! Almost 2.5 times more than Sky and sitting at 37% reach against the population to Sky’s 8%.

    How is that not mass, at least from a reach point of view?

    You also point out that to be mass, the medium needs to be inclusive, which social media as you say, isn’t, as its geared toward the technically savvy. Its this point which I have to disagree with. What is so technically exclusive about social media, about Facebook as an example? The barrier to participation is purposely low because the success of a site such as Facebook is based on the volume of users. Why would you join if no one else was on there?

    Its this that makes it very hard for me to believe in your argument, if there were any additional context or comparison around the key term in your founding question “mass media” I’d love to hear it as its a very interesting topic and one that’s already proving to be worth some debate.


  7. Hi guys, thanks for your comments.

    Scott – we’re getting into semantics again but would you consider local radio or a women’s magazine as mass media? If Facebook ever got more than half of the population accessing at least once a month, it would be better performing than most other media channels

    A great point about lapsing or dis-adopting though. The longer FB sticks around, the harder it is for people to migrate, since they will have invested so much time in it. But people can quit (eg over privacy issues) and the latest generation of kids will have no legacy effect and could quite easily go somewhere else. Whether they move to FB when they “grow up” is another matter

    James – I was listening to an interesting debate between Joseph Jaffe and Mitch Joel – http://bit.ly/anXeo7 – about whether social media deserves to be considered its own channel/specialism or not. One of the issues we face with media definitions is platform convergence – is TV still TV if it is on a laptop, and what about when we get websites on TV? I think you’re probably right in that technically social media is a sub-category, but its characteristics make it a special case.

    Regarding inclusiveness, I think we’re getting to the point where people see no active benefit in signing up. People that don’t need the “events” section to keep track of their social lives, or people happy with the telephone/email. For later adopters, the technology needs to have a proven benefit. Yes, there is a huge number of users but is the benefit clear, or to the less savvy person is it just a waste of time. “Phatic communications” won’t mean much to them. It is my opinion that for FB to continue to expand, it needs to go beyond its current functionality to provide tangible benefit (relevant information, or time saving) while retaining simplicity (and, it does need to simplify – click on the RWW link in my blog post to read how users got confused when facebook log-in wasn’t the top result in google)

    Thanks for your thoughts

  8. “…would you consider local radio or a women’s magazine as mass media? If Facebook ever got more than half of the population accessing at least once a month, it would be better performing than most other media channels”

    Yes- because, going back to the wikipedia definition of “a section of the media specifically designed to reach a large audience”, those sections (ie. a women’s magazine, or a local radio station) are designed to reach a mass audience.

    Facebook itself isn’t “mass media”, because if you seperate the framework of Facebook and the content it holds, it becomes clearer that the content itself isn’t designed to reach a large audience. While the ability to reach 10 million Michael Jackson fans (the most “fanned” of all fan pages, according to http://statistics.allfacebook.com/pages) might sound like a large number, on a global scale it’s still pretty small. (And that’s for the biggest of all the fan pages right now- the numbers drop down pretty quickly.)

    It would be interesting to see what would happen if an advertiser decided to use Facebook for a mass reach campaign though. (Or maybe someone already has- after all, if they didn’t announce it in the trade press, who would notice?)

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