Friday, December 02, 2005

The Evolution of Mass

Back in the dot-com era, the gospel was that the age of mass media and mass marketing was coming to an end. The focus was shifting to one-to-one experiences. Fast forward to late 2005, and the real story is very different. Mass is no longer a dirty word—it’s essential for success. We’ve gone through two stages of the evolution of mass, and we’re now in the third. Let’s look at where we are and how we got there:

Stage One: Mass Aggregation

This is where things started post-World War II: The goal was to get as many people as possible in one place, so that you could sell them as much mass-produced stuff as possible. This is the model that Yahoo!, Excite, Ask Jeeves, etc. originally followed: Aggregate as many eyeballs as possible, keep them for as long as possible, and sell them to advertisers. This is also the foundation for Internet commerce: and eBay work only because so many consumers come to their sites to buy.

The big difference between mass aggregation up to the late 1990s and mass aggregation today is the composition of the mass. The old mass model discounted differences in the audience, and sold everyone who showed up the same things. If you watched “All in the Family,” advertisers assumed that you’d probably buy the same type of car and drink the same kind of beer as everyone else who watched the show.

Today’s mass audience is comprised of a host of micro-audiences, each with its own interests and reasons for being there. Someone may go to Yahoo! to get driving directions to a meeting, investigate job opportunities, read the latest entertainment news or listen to music. It’s the aggregate of all these micro-audiences that makes Yahoo! so valuable to advertisers. Advertisers can pitch to everyone who comes to the site, everyone looking for directions in a certain city, or everyone who happens to be interested in model railroading.

Stage Two: Mass Participation

Yahoo! Groups.’s customer reviews. eBay’s feedback. All of these are examples of mass participation. Information and ideas come not just from one source, but from many. Participants share their experiences and insights with one another, which dramatically increases the value and credibility of the information. On a shopping site like Pricewatch, in addition to the vendor-supplied product specifications and prices, you’ll also find ratings and reviews contributed by other customers.  Just the number of reviews that a given vendor has provides valuable information; the more reviews, the more reliable the rating is likely to be. It brings an entirely new dimension to a purchase decision that would have previously been based primarily on price.

The participants generally aren’t creating “freestanding” content. Their contributions are meaningful only in the context of the host site’s own content (or goods and services.) For example, eBay’s buyer and seller feedback only makes sense when considering whether or not to do business with someone on eBay itself. Comments in a Yahoo! group make sense only within the context of the other messages and comments in the group. The next stage, however, expands the impact of individual contributions from a single site to a much bigger arena.

Stage Three: Mass Empowerment

Create a blog, and you can discredit evidence from a broadcast news story or report first-hand about government ineptitude in the wake of Katrina. Put your PC up for sale on eBay, and you become a sophisticated electronic merchant serving potential customers anywhere in the world. This is mass empowerment.

The objective of mass empowerment is to enable individuals to compete with the giants of media and commerce on a level playing field. It’s democratic, egalitarian and highly chaotic. Individuals change their roles on the fly: Read a variety of blogs to figure out the zeitgeist of a particular topic, then write your own blog entry and link back to your sources. Buy some shop equipment on eBay, use it to build custom furniture and then sell the furniture on eBay. Both network effects and virtuous circles arise from mass empowerment.

eBay is the clear leader in commerce mass empowerment, although’s Marketplace is also popular with sellers of books, music, videos and similar goods. Google and Yahoo! are fighting for leadership in media mass empowerment, but AOL and MSN are also major players. Apple’s iTunes has become the leading distributor of podcasts, but Yahoo! is climbing fast. Google and Apple are leading in the early rounds of videocasts (or vodcasts,) but there’s plenty of opportunity for other aggregators to jump into the fray.

Where To Now?

The exciting thing about the Internet has always been the fact that even if future directions are obvious, how we get there usually isn’t. Internet search was considered a commodity before Google turned it into an incredible growth engine. Internet radio died a protracted death at the hands of the recording industry, only to be resurrected as podcasts, most of which are beyond the control of entrenched business and government interests. I believe that vodcasts are the next great frontier of mass empowerment--there’s enormous room for new players to jump in with production, editing and indexing software that will make creating vodcasts much easier and more productive.

The stage beyond mass empowerment may well be mass collaboration. Once there’s a critical mass of individual producers, the next step is to start getting individuals working together across the Internet. Wikis are an obvious first step in this process, but there are plenty of opportunities to enable more sophisticated peer-to-peer collaboration. For example, a group of individual eBay merchants could pool their expertise and inventories to create a virtual mass merchant with a single identity, even though the individual members are scattered all over the world. A virtual newswire can be created by a group of individual bloggers, either for a single event (i.e., an election or conference) or on an ongoing basis. Vodcasters can parcel out the many tasks that go into creating video content to collaborators across the country and around the world.

No matter what the next stage turns out to be, the combination of mass and micro will drive the evolution of media and commerce.

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