SVP—Director of Digital, Creative Content and Data Analysis
Digital fragmentation: challenge or opportunity?
The rise of the internet and social media has led to two opposing phenomena in the way content is being produced, distributed and shared: consolidation and fragmentation. Rather than fear this, brands can benefit from both trends.
Under pressure from competition, traditional content producers—the media, brands and corporations—now have to grow big enough to rationalize their costs and reach a large audience. It’s what is known in the industry as having “scalability.” This is consolidation.
In parallel, technological innovations have torn down the traditional barriers to entry and made it possible for anyone to produce and distribute information easily, leading to the multiplication of producers who provide content and information tailored to even the most niche of communities. This is fragmentation.
In this fragmented era, more sources of information, on very different and specialized topics, mean that people are less likely to read only one broad and legitimate media, and instead look for multiple smaller but specific and specialized sources. Since anyone can produce his or her own piece of news and have access to distribution channels (social media, blogs, forums, et cetera), it often means that the information is free. But it also makes it more difficult to check the accuracy and authenticity of the information.
The challenge for companies is daunting at first sight, as infinite choice creates a lot of fragmentation. Consumers are also capable of having generic and specific interests at once. Corporations now have to cater to both. They must answer specific needs, and at the same time talk to a large audience, while remaining accurate and trustworthy.
It doesn’t mean they have to pick one option or the other, though. Chris Anderson, author of “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” published in 2006, was early to identify that this “shift from the generic to the specific doesn’t mean the end of the existing power structure or a wholesale shift to an all-amateur, laptop culture. Instead, it’s simply a rebalancing of the equation, an evolution from an ‘OR’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture versus subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era.”
The opportunity therefore lies in the ability to combine widespread reach while better targeting communities. This requires optimizing PR strategy and media investments by first identifying relevant audiences and understanding what makes them tick: their needs, interests and expectations. Companies then have to mix reach and engagement to achieve different goals, such as heightened profile and awareness through reach, and brand/product preference through engagement, with qualified interactions and content. Take the example of Nike: its communications reach a vast audience through the power of the brand and its owned and paid distribution channels; at the same time the company engages specific sports communities (runners, tennis players, et cetera), primarily through an earned strategy.
This new balance of power and distribution in the content ecosystem demands specific capabilities and a new way of targeting and talking to your audience, and this is very much at the core of PR: understanding the culture of your audience and the topics they care about to craft stories and experiences matching their interests. At Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW France), our Trufluence®[a] approach relies on four major steps:
1. Listen to your audience. If you want to meet people’s expectations you have to understand who they are, what are they talking about and to whom, and what makes sense to them in a fragmented world.
2. Tailor the engagement strategy depending on the community you are talking to, and what your expectations may be towards each specific community. Self-centered speech no longer works, so companies have to focus on conversations and shape their content accordingly to gain attention in the crowd and create an authentic bond to each community.
3. Create engaging content and experiences to optimize each step of the customer journey, whether it is an anonymous audience, a suspect, a prospect or a faithful customer. Use tailored engagement campaigns and dedicated experiences all along the funnel to create a durable long-term relationship.
4. Analyze the results of the content, and the real-time interactions with the audience, to assess the performance of the communications efforts and check whether they match the audience’s expectations in order to constantly improve the whole process.
Digital fragmentation is not a curse for brands, it is a shift in the way they must communicate, from a brand-centric approach towards a community-centric one. Which means a rebalancing of power between brands and their audiences, the power now lying in the hands of the communities. But it is also the responsibility of the brands to match their needs, in order to empower them in a genuine way.[b]