social media & social networks

Why social media will never be like mass media

A lot of people confuse social media for mass media. This piece aims at explaining  how the two are clearly different, in terms of content, uniqueness, and audience, among other aspects. 

Why social media will never be like mass media

“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 a 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 (67 million), mass media audiences reach tens of millions of people. The numbers are a matter for debate, we’ll get back to that later.

social media vs mass media
Mass Media (in the age of cable TV networks)

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.

Why social media will never equate to mass media
Why social media will never equate to mass media

Social media is guided by the rules of word of mouth marketing. In this environment, content is inexhaustible, groups of readeror 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’ 

In social media there is no such thing as passive audiences unlike in 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

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 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.

Source: Why social media will never be like mass media | Social Marketing & Social Selling

Yann Gourvennec
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Yann Gourvennec

Yann Gourvennec created in 1996. He is a speaker and author of 6 books. In 2014 he went from intrapreneur to entrepreneur, when he created his digital marketing agency. ———————————————————— Yann Gourvennec a créé en 1996. Il est conférencier et auteur de 6 livres. En 2014, il est passé d'intrapreneur à entrepreneur en créant son agence de marketing numérique. More »

One Comment

  1. Thanks for the TweetReach by Union Metrics shoutout, Mia, we appreciate it!
    – Sarah A. Parker
    Social Media Manager | Union Metrics
    Fine Makers of TweetReach, The Union Metrics Social Suite, and more


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