Fragmented Audiences and Fractured Content

Jim1Saturday was a fine New York City weekend day. I worked on errands in the apartment with the wife. We ran some errands around the neighborhood. Stopped in at one of those Greek diners that used to be ubiquitous throughout the city but are now rare enough to be considered hip. You know the place… where you can get cream of turkey soup, a cheddar omelet, or moussaka, depending on the mood.

We then worked out in Central Park with a trainer friend of ours we’d not seen in some time, as it evidenced by just how out of shape I am. I was sweating like Paul Prudhome on a hit of ecstasy. I’d like to blame it on the heat, as it was on the hot and humid side of the weather that afternoon, but as I get older, I find I get more honest. And so, in the spirit of honesty and disclosure, I treated myself to a few post-workout margaritas at Maz Mescal. As the day ended and I found myself on the couch flipping channels, I came across the 10pm showing of and old “Saturday Night Live” on NBC.  It was the one with Kevin Spacey as the guest host, his first, from April of 1997.

I remember distinctly this episode from its first airing 18 years ago. I was at the apartment of some friends of mine in Oakland, CA. It wasn’t a party, per se, but a lot of friends were gathered there, drinking, eating, and doing what a lot of people used to do: gather around a TV to all watch a program everyone liked. It was the same year the Star Wars trilogy had been rereleased, January, February, and March, and SNL spoofed it with outstanding “Star Wars screen tests.” They’re all over the web now, but here’s a sample.

They are all over the web. In bits and pieces you can find all the best little scraps of that particular episode. Not in one place, and not as a cohesive narrative, but as shards of bright, beautiful broken glass. To be enjoyed as a rarified bit of creative output in the private moment of an individual life. Because this is how so much of content is consumed now: singularities of audience meeting up with idiosyncratically discrete content.

We’ve talked for a long time about the fragmentation of media audiences, but the same thing has happed to the bulk of content we consume. One doesn’t buy “albums” or “records” or whatever one calls the full collection of a music artist’s product now; one buys a single track. One doesn’t watch the news; one gets a snippet of video or a share on Facebook. One doesn’t sit through a whole episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” one sees a segment that was posted to YouTube.

To be sure, we can say about this, “but, ever thus?” Couldn’t people always buy singles rather than albums? Could you always tune in to the local news when you knew only sports or weather was going to be covered? Couldn’t you always – well, at least since the late 70s – always just fast forward through the VHS to your favorite parts of the recording, be it a movie, TV show, or porn? Sure, but it’s easier now. The friction on willful fragmentation has never been higher.

What these challenges are established, or establishing, unified cultural experiences with which to associate as a marketer. The “Mad Men” series finale may not have agreed with everyone, but the artifact of culture they use at the end is only an artifact of culture because that ad was introduced to us when unified cultural experiences were possible because we had unified media experiences. I will not spoil the episode for anyone who has it still sitting on their DVR, yet another means of fragmenting both audience and content, but it’s interesting to think of the show and its finale as a symbol of this transition from “we” to “I” in both our culture and our media.

This is not to say unified cultural experiences don’t exist, they are just few and far between. This makes long form content and, one could say… I might say… serial content, all the more powerful. Large groups of people tune in for live events, or for content they really love. Some of this content is found online. Some of this content is, it so happens, those little snippets I mentioned earlier with what might be read as a hint of disdain.

The point is, with all our data collection and precision targeting and quest for efficient (read: cheap) inventory to mitigate the risk of a miss, there are few things that beat content that people love as a way of worming into an audience’s heart. And this is something that advertising got good at, when it realized that it, too, was a narrative, a piece of creative output, an opportunity for being a culturally unifying experience. Interestingly, “Mad Men” focused on the era when advertising made that transition from just “being there” to let you know about a product or service, to “being part of there” where the product or service was a character in the broader narrative of an audiences’ life.

Content and context still matter, in spite of targeting and data. A day of errands and exercise and margaritas mean nothing as data points, they mean everything as part of the narrative of a day in a life. The story still matters, both from the media we consume, and the advertising we seek to associate with it.

Jim Meskauskas is a co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Media Darwin, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning of commercial communicative action. He’s a medialogist who has spent the last 20 years living, breathing and thinking about how to use media to move people to action. Outside of that, his likes are horror movies, Southeast Asian cuisine, his wife and his cat — not necessarily in that order. His dislikes are mean people, people who text while walking in or out of the subway entrances, pestilence, war, famine and death.