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Math, media, and mass marketing: Today, the little guy has the biggest voice

February 8, 2011 2 comments

Marketers have known for quite some time that marketing to smaller segments of the population can be more effective than marketing to the masses.  Now, the New York Times has reported on a surprising – but similar – new development in the study of the spread of social memes, like “retweets” on Twitter or spreading gossip, videos, information, or news through other social networks and blogs. Researchers have found new patterns in the way that information is spread in cyberspace and have found that it is dependent upon a multitude of factors including the polarizing nature of the information, the structure of the social network, and what we’re looking at in today’s post: how the sharers stack up statistically against the rest of the population. That is, where they lie on demographic spectra often used by marketers to focus their efforts.

As it turns out, the sharers on the “fringes of society” have the greatest influence on a broader scale.

As any marketer knows, mathematics and quantitative research have become increasingly important in marketing over the past decades, from conducting the most mundane focus groups to intensive market research involving measuring the sentiments, attitude changes, and behavioral changes of hundreds of thousands of people over years. And it has become more and more apparent that marketing to the masses isn’t always the most effective way to influence people. One well-known example of this idea is the classic “long tail theory.”

Long tail theory refers to the way demographics are distributed on a graph like the one at left. The larger the demographic group, the farther it lies to the left of the graph.  For instance, female adults between the ages of 18-55 might be represented at the extreme left of the graph; female adults between the ages of 25-35 who live in urban areas might be represented somewhere in the middle; and female adults ages 55-65 who play more than 4 hours of online video games per day might be represented at the far right -“the long tail” of the graph.

While it may seem intuitive to focus marketing to the left end of the spectrum, where there are the most subjects, marketers eventually figured out that the the long tail (basically, the total quantity of people from a large number of small groups) is actually larger than the tall end of the graph (the total quantity of people from a small number of large groups). Therefore, marketers of products (besides those applying to nearly everyone, like toilet paper or gasoline) get more bang for their buck by focusing on “the long tail.”

Now, with the idea that the “long tail” – smaller, more specialized groups of the population – has already long been recognized as a prime target for focused marketing efforts, let’s take a look at another popular marketing metric that evidences the same sea change in social media influence, as featured in the New York Times article we’re referencing – the bell curve.  Marketers can use the bell curve as a method to target the most average members of a population – those lying at the center of the curve. But according to the article, social media influence is more and more held by those at the extreme ends of the curve – for instance, the early adopters of a technology; the most prolific bloggers in a small niche; the tweeters who share the most news the fastest.

As a case study, let’s take an example of how this impacts the marketing of a product: say, Ugg boots. Some love their Uggs more than their own mother; some hate Uggs with a passion that burns deep; and most people kind of like them or kind of don’t like them or don’t really care one way or another. Marketers are increasingly seeing that the way to get the word out is to reach out to the extreme haters and the extreme lovers. The extremes of the bell curve are the populations which are most likely to share information about the marketer’s brand, says Sunil Gupta, a digital marketing professor at the Harvard Business School.

There you have it: the little guys have the biggest voices. It’s already abundantly clear that social media is rewriting the book on how people relate to one another, influence one another, and learn about the world. We as marketers and public relations professionals are seeing social media not only rewrite the book on the methods organizations and institutions use to relate to people, influence people, and teach them about the world – but recalibrate the algorithms as well.

What’s the takeaway from this? Leave no stone unturned in seeking the maximum effectiveness in penetrating key audiences with key messages. In this regard, you can take lessons learned from long tail theory and apply them to your media relations outreach: that is, focusing on the smaller, niche, trade publications on the “long tail” of the graph can be just as effective at raising awareness of your clients’ brands and stories, earning credibility among their peers and core client base, and driving referrals and business growth as focusing on the Wall Street Journals and Vanity Fairs of the press world. When it comes to reaching and influencing specialized groups of referral sources or customers, even “little” media has a big voice.

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