Why social media will never be like mass media

Guest Post by Yann Gourvennec

“Social mass media” is an oxymoron

I first coined the “social mass media” phrase in a Hootsuite video a while back, more in jest than in earnest I have to admit. Social media has indeed been considered by (too) many professionals as a new means to apply their good old mass media communications recipes. Regardless, there are many issues regarding this vision of social media as the new mass media. In my eyes, one should try and get back to the basics of word of mouth marketing. In this piece, I will describe why I believe social media will never be the new mass media advertising professionals – and some of their clients – think it has become.

Consumer, I love you and I know you

 The following video, as far as I know, is a Microsoft commercial. So much for those who think advertising agencies have no sense of humour. At least the one behind this video has a sharp sense of self denial. It briefly sums up the situation: advertisers (and their clients) spy on consumers, track them and “personalise messages” (another word for spamming maybe?), thinking this is enough for clients to feel loved and recognised. But all this ends in a divorce. Don’t imagine advertising is useless though. As a matter of fact, It has already been proven that advertising is efficient in the long run and has a track-record of stimulating desires and behaviours. For those who still get this wrong, please refer to the excellent demonstration on the importance of advertising in Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow opus.


Mass media vs. social media

The reason why social media cannot make do with mass media approaches lies elsewhere. In fact, like it or not, mass media and social media are sitting on the opposite sides of the marketing spectrum. And confusing one for the other does pose a problem: not only is is bit like trying to place round pegs in square holes, it is also pretty ineffectual.


Mass media means content in small supply for large quantities of people


In traditional media, content has to be as unique as possible, and therefore must be in limited supply. Quality being a subjective criterion I won’t take it into account. The objective with mass media is to deliver content to the greatest number of people; hence its name. Having vast amounts of content, let alone user-generated hardly comes into play. What matters is that the content in question be applicable to the majority. Even on the scale of a small country like France (65+ million inhabitants) or Britain (60 million), mass media audiences reach tens of millions of people. The numbers are a matter for debate, we’ll get back to that later.

first pic

Mass media follow a logic of content in limited supply, as unique as possible, delivered to large audiences (cable/satellite channels mimic that approach but only reach a fragment of that audience).


Social media is a horse of a different colour

 On the opposite, content on social media is plentiful, it lends itself to duplication and is therefore easy to adapt and share. Unlike traditional media, it is not all about copyright and uniqueness. The norm, on the contrary is that of the Creative Commons license. It grants readers the right to share, use and build up upon existing content. Nevertheless, Creative Commons does not mean copyright-free. One should not get confused, rules also apply to online shareable content.

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Social media is guided by the rules of word of mouth marketing. In this environment, content is inexhaustible, groups of readers or participants (vs. viewers/eyeballs) are small and segmented. Media (“message”) views are weak, and even sometimes reduced by the platform (Facebook shrink your post views by tweaking edgeranks to encourage you to “promote” your posts)

Stop confusing social media for TV ‘audiences’

 On social media there is no such thing as passive audiences like on mass media. Even though real content creators are and remain a minority of 0.1-10% depending on subjects and platforms (check Forrester’s social technographics diagram for reference), and can even go up to 20+% in some cases if small content creation like Facebook posts is taken into account, no user of social media is entirely passive. As a result, there is something amiss with the use of the term ‘audience’ when it comes to social media. An audience being a group of passive users, looking at the same piece of content without interaction.

In this instance, I am not taking so-called “social TV/radio” into account. One might think that this is a game-changer and that social turns binge viewing into interactive viewing but I would disagree with that. Social impact is different according to the kind of shows (deemed “high social” and “low social” shows by Nielsen). Its impact is still low (except for “high social” shows) and besides, one may also look at this phenomenon as two activities carried out side by side rather than interaction being added to passive mass media viewing). For more information on TV viewing and the social impact on “audiences” check this 2014 piece by Nielsen at http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2014/building-time-shifted-audiences-does-social-tv-play-a-role.html

Audience, viewers, potential viewers, what are we talking about here?

In my opinion, the definition of ‘audience’ that one typically uses in the case of mass media, and that one extends to websites, is way off the mark when it comes to social media.

audience noun [C] (GROUP OF PEOPLE)

B1 [+ sing/pl verb] the ​group of ​people together in one ​place to ​watch or ​listen to a ​play, ​film, someone ​speaking, etc.:

B2 [+ sing/pl verb] the (​number of) ​people ​watching or ​listening to a ​particular ​television or ​radio ​programme, ​reading a ​particular ​book, or ​visiting a ​particular ​website

source: Cambridge dictionary

Assuming one can measure precisely the “number of people” watching a website is already walking on thin ice. On the Web, users/consumers are building their own schedules, collecting pieces of information in no particular order and sometimes, “consuming” several pieces of information at the same time. Their attention isn’t always focused on one single task. On many occasions, we have found out that, when calling back B2B leads generated through a Website and asking them about what they wanted, a vast majority of them couldn’t even remember visiting the Website, let alone filling in a form, just one day after the capture of their email address. Besides, as I was working for one of the world’s largest telcos a few years back I noticed quite a few times that official Web audience measurement could easily be twice as big (at other times twice as small) as what I could see with my own eyes on my site-centric stats dashboard. I can’t explain why nor will even try to, all I know is that I only trust site-centric analytics.

Moving forward, with regard to social media, the use of the term ‘audience’ is really unconvincing to say the least

And now a few facts and figures. Imagine that you publish a few tweets to your 13,000 followers. It is a good number for a ‘normal’ user who is neither an expert nor a celebrity. This score would place you in the 500 first Twitter users in London or first 250 in Paris, and even higher than some minor local celebs. Obviously, in the States, the stakes would be higher.

If we were to measure our “reach” for this 13,000 follower-tweet, one would then use online apps such as the excellent tweetreach.com. Now, you would certainly think that reaching thousands of people (a true “audience”) in a single message is quite an achievement. Well done Twitterer, you will go far! Well, not so, not so. This is all wrong. And time and time again I have seen people with stars in their eyes because certain ‘influencers’ (notice the inverted commas) were able to drown the cyberworld with thousands and thousands of views. Hold on. All these numbers are just the result of the piling up of potential readers (get the nuance?) So actually, it does not mean much if anything at all. It may be good. It may be bad, only time will tell.


Lacking imagination, I made a research of my own Twitter handle. Try a search on any given hashtag and you will reach (potential) huge “audience” numbers. And you would be completely wrong.


Shareholders and advertisers looking for ‘audience’ numbers in Twitter are in for trouble


Of course, I don’t mean that tweeting is useless. On the contrary, I love it and think this is really powerful. But if what you are after is an “audience” of mindless followers gobbling up your words you’re in for trouble because this isn’t the way that social media is working. Social media isn’t so much about valuing numbers as it is about valuing interactions, and even so, meaningful interactions.


There is a case however, in which social media will act (almost) as mass media: it’s when you are already famous. Snowden attracted 900,000 followers a few hours only after opening his Twitter account this year and so did the Pope and Obama before him. Big deal, they are already widely known and popular. You, and your brand, may not be so lucky. I even heard that advertisers were buying tweets from celebrities at incredible prices for a single tweet. Not only is it astrosurfing – and therefore mildly illegal – it’s also not very effective. Tweets aren’t messages, impressions aren’t views. There is a huge misunderstanding here. So, unless a mass media journalists sees that tweet, many chances are that it will remain the Internet’s best kept secret.


Twitter and Facebook (and the like) aren’t real “media”

The bottom line is that Twitter and Facebook, to name a few social platforms but all of them are concerned, aren’t real “media”. they are more like – at least their timelines are – uninterrupted pipes of information. In order to reach a large number of views, one will have to share the content several times (that is exactly why I publish my articles several times during the day on Twitter, an approach I learned from Guy Kawasaki when he came to visit the socialmedia.org guys a few years ago. Even though Twitter tries to suppress that (hence shooting oneself once more in the foot).


As a matter of fact, you cannot assume that everyone is in front of their gaspedalscreen at the time of your first Tweet, nor even the second. (Facebook works differently – you won’t be allowed to post the same kind of information as many times without being penalised – but in essence it is also an interrupted pipe of information pouring from your friends and friends’s friends). Sometimes, a promoted message pops up as an attempt to revive Seth Godin’s archenemy (marketing by interruption) and they even get a few, very few, clicks for their money. As Hugh once put it, advertising Is the cost of being boring.


This phenomenon is interesting because timelines on social media such as Facebook or Twitter are somewhat disconnected from user accounts. One may very well use one’s social media account and even post a lot of stuff, without paying much attention to other people’s opinions/content. And this is exactly what a lot of people do; and most brands too. Because they think it’s “media”, means all they have to do is post nice things, preferably nice kittens, and people will “like” them and that’s that. Obviously, no-one can be more mistaken.


The infamous edgerank


In addition to that, certain social platforms such as Facebook reduce the reach of your messages (thanks to the infamous edgerank that controls which posts are to be displayed on users’ timelines). This is what drives brands mad at the moment, seeing how much they invested in paid social media and how much deeper their pockets must be to keep going.


Now, do you understand a bit more how social media differs from mass media? Imagine being a TV series producer for the BBC and that the channel managers decide to turn off your audience’s TV sets of their own accord. Their aim would be to get paid to turn those TV sets back on. Would you still deal with a business partner like the BBC? I don’t think so (as a matter of fact the BBC operates without advertising which is even more virtuous).


Different ways of using social media (and not necessarily as a conversation tool)


To make things even more complex, there are more than many ways of using social media. Social media can be used as a tool for one to many and many to many conversations, crowdsourcing, sharing, creativity, and even messaging. More often than not, we start using these tools and it only starts dawning on us that more possibilities exist much later on in this process. I started using Twitter in early 2007 and remained puzzled by the 140 character microblogging system for quite a few months. You may add Social to TV though, It’s flavour of the month. and You can certainly notice that there is yet another difference with mass media, the latter being a one-way channel.


Frederic Cavazza’s drawing is spot on: social media is not mass media, but it differs from community platforms too

We have already established that mass media is used in one way only. The fluctuating element of consumption in mass media, is the users’ viewing time. With the rise of the plus7/catch-up TV concept, it has turned television viewing into a live/recorded mass media.

So, beware, don’t always trust the numbers. The audience of social media ads are not really cumulative.


Caption: The Perrier ad on Facebook reached 6.7 million “views “ but are we talking about views or reach or potential reach… and what is 6 million views to Perrier, honestly.

And even so, the reach is modest, considering the amount of engagement that is out of reach for low budgets. (I witnessed several examples of low budgets that attempted to micro-target audience on Facebook. Well, even using ads, they obtained weaker results than this very blog post, through pure organic reach).


Mass media and social media do not have common audience figures

 I dug deeper into the French media audience figures (the ones that were available to me), which are huge. Even on mass media, interpretations vary. Audience “points” fluctuate (anything between 561 000 and 581 000 peopler each point). Thus, average audiences are huge, only a handful of Websites reach such numbers, there is no comparison.

Even a niche channel like French leading news channel BFMTV that has an average audience of 2%, reaches around 1 million spectators. The evening peak (between 9:15 and 9:30 PM) represents an audience of 27 million people, everyday except on Saturdays.


A: an amateur video about Nutella shot by a user who is not impressed by Ferrero’s advertising campaigns



B: mission 404, a highly engaging viral video by Orangina produced by Studio Bagel (a Canal+ company). A brilliant viral video example.


Caption: The evening audience peak on TV, mass media by excellence


So, if we want to compare the audience on Youtube, we can look at the following cases: (A) an amateur Nutella video (with almost a US-type score) and superior ranking in YouTube on the “Nutella” keyword and (B) Studio Bagel’s (Canal +) professional viral video “mission 404” (a very engaging and highly successful several-million-euro super production). The cumulated audience of these videos is of around 6 million each. Mass media capture their audiences around brief moments, with YouTube, it’s a different story, there is a long-tail effect. (Note that with catch-up TV, the visibility time is extended to another week).


Note: there are of course YouTube videos like Gagnam Style with billions of views, but this is out of proportion. Let me refer back to our analysis on the Korean phenomenon in our book Mastering Digital Marketing Like a Boss.


Recently, in 2015, Google has tightened its grip on Youtube and is trying to find its own economic model regarding mass media. Nothing too surprising, according to what I discussed previously. It has taken years for YouTube to attract serious advertisers to its platform, now the latter are seriously anxious to get value for their money.


Social media platforms are not, in fact, mass media: there is a lot of content out there and Content Delivery Network costs are impressive and rocketing with views (a 15 minute HD video weighs around 200 million bytes, or even 1 GB if uncompressed). It is extremely costly to narrowcast such content overs CDNs, a special infrastructure is required, it’s not as trivial as it seems.


It’s possible that the cost for Youtube be around 100 million dollars per year for bandwidth and storage only. I would say this is a bit underestimated. Despite this, audiences, as we have seen, do not match. monetising such “audiences” therefore really causes an issue. Besides, from a user and usability point of view, online monetisation is truly annoying and a real deterrent because of the increasing invasiveness of online video advertising. All of this is prompting users to adopt ad blocking systems and circumvent the issue.


Again, social media and mass media work in different ways. To sum it all up, this article aims at prompting brands to look at social media differently. Maybe they should also look at advertising differently, or so Pepsico’s Brad Jakeman said, but as I’m no expert in advertising, I’ll take his word for it. Brands should realise that relying on paid media is not always a good move regarding the return on their investment, even though it looks like it’s the easy way out.


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social media vs antisocial media

As a conclusion, it is important not to confuse paid, owned and earned (word of mouth) media. Advertisers’ approach to social media is, in my eyes, flawed. And Facebook pages should never be – IMHO – at the centre of a social media strategy. The aim of word of mouth is that people share your stuff on their pages, and not to transform Facebook into a Website generator; even though the latter would be delighted that the Internet be entirely encapsulated within it.

Given all that, it’s about time to go back to word-of-mouth marketing basics.







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