Four Signs Social Media Is Now A Mass Medium

One common complaint I hear from marketers is that social media is not (yet) a mass medium. For example, the circulation for Cosmopolitan is 3 million, while the magazine counts just 700,000 fans in Facebook. And while it seems (almost) everyone is creating, using or consuming social media today, it is a highly fractured channel. Thirty years ago, almost every person watching television was tuned into one of three networks; today, 550 million people use Facebook, and each and every one of them is their own network.

However, the fact that social media is fractured and personalized does not mean that it isn't a mass medium; it just means it is a challenging mass medium. Here is the evidence for social as a mass medium:

  • Impressions: In a report published earlier this year, Josh Bernoff and I shared data developed using a new word-of-mouth analysis tool, Peer Influence Analysis. Forrester found that some 500 billion influence impressions about products and services are created in social media each year -- a number that is sure to grow when we repeat the research in 2011. That compares to around 2 trillion online ad impressions according to Nielsen (and which do people find more persuasive and worthy of attention -- ads or recommendations from friends?).
  • Media Consumption: Forrester's ongoing monitoring of the Social Technographics of US adults demonstrates that 59% are now Joiners, visiting or maintaining a profile on a social network each month. And as the number of social networkers has grown, so has the time spent. Nielsen data from June 2010 demonstrates that social networking is the top online activity, accounting for almost 1 in 4 hours spent online;  in the year prior, the share of online time spent social networking grew 43% while email shrunk 28%. If all that evidence isn't enough, watch for Facebook to surpass 600 million users in early 2011, almost one-third of Internet users globally and about 10% of the inhabitants on the planet.
  • Impact: While mainstream media loves to jump on news that casts doubt on the impact of social media (such as Pew's recent study reporting that just 8% of people use Twitter and half don't listen to tweets), it often ignores that reach and influence are not synonymous. The New York Times is read by just 1 million people but is a bellwether for the country, and the New England Journal of Medicine routinely alters health care around the world despite being read by just 600,000 people. As I've argued in the past, regardless of the numbers, social media has attained mainstream influence in the US. It delivers late-breaking news, has been adopted by celebrities and world leaders, forces changes in corporate behavior and influences the actions of governments.
  • P&G says so: If you're a marketer and all of the above doesn't convince you that social media is a mass medium, then there's this: Procter & Gamble -- the company that led brands into radio and television -- is again leading the way into social media. According to USA Today, P&G is exiting sponsorship and production of daytime TV dramas (a medium it helped create 77 years ago) and reducing its advertising on daytime television in order to shift budgets into social media. Says an agency executive, "Social media has become mass media, and for women especially. I think for all marketers, these one-way, 30-second (TV) spots are very expensive and are less effective for the way that women make decisions." The article cites the success of Old Spice's campaign, including 1.8 billion impression, 140 million YouTube views, and double-digit sales growth.

I find the debate over whether or not social media is a mass medium rather silly. Consumers have already decided this with their habits and actions; it's up to marketers to shift their budgets and plans accordingly. It is tough to achieve scale in such a fractured medium, but it's hardly impossible. Hawaii Five-O, the most popular new show of this television season, averages approximately 11 million viewers live plus same day while Coca-Cola’s fan page on Facebook counts almost twice as many fans. In 2011, we'll see more brands like Coke and Old Spice reach and influence the masses via social media. 


On denial

You don't share the names of the marketers or their organizations, but my hunch is their clients disagree -- for the reasons and case studies you cite.

But you know what, Augie? If that marketer doesn't want to believe you, so be it. Another marketer will -- and the first marketer will either be forced to get with the program or lose clients who shift to marketer number two.

There are groups in this world who deny the Holocaust occurred, and others who think 9/11 was a government conspiracy. They can believe what they want because you and I know the truth. Same with social media, which is why you write on your blog and people like me read it and comment.

Social media is not to be reckoned with? Uhh, whatever. Keep denying it. Or contact me and I'll help explain why denial is the first stage to admitting it.

Does it matter?

These days all media are fragmented, so social media are not unique in that regard. As the P&G guy says, it boils down to the fact that the ROI for TV ads is no longer what it used to be. If this is the case, then the shift to some other media is inevitable - whether it will be a permanent shift to social media is yet to be determined.

It's mass all right

Social media is certainly massive, but it's not a medium. It's not media.

Josh and I disagree

While I share your concern about the baggage associated with the word "media," trashing the word because some marketers and ad agency types think "paid" and not "earned" is odd, in my opinion. According to Webster, "Media" is "a medium of cultivation, conveyance or expression." Social media is clearly that.

My problem with "media"

My problem with media is that it sounds like something you use to buy advertising in. Ask any media agency.

I know I'm out of step with common parlance but I reserve my right to be a damn curmudgeon.

Done ranting now.


I disagree with you on this one small point, but I'll fight to the death for your right to be a damn curmudgeon about it!

Out There

Ads and agencies are fabricated, but mediums emerge, spring-up from the minds of technology and the mouths of communication. Media flows, meandering across the cosmos of the human need to share.


Wow, deep!


Whatever wine or beer you're enjoying, I want some. Thanks for the deepest comment I've ever received on a blog!

Why Marketers?

Some interesting and valid indicators about the social web being a mass medium (keeping in mind that reaching out to the individual can be just as important). But why do 90%+ industry spokespeople always associate it with marketing? Surely this isn't so, as this indicates a fundamental flaw of "using" social media to market to people i.e. push out messages. This approach is the root cause of many brands catastrophically #failing with their approach. There is no control out there, let the people say what they want to (they will regardless) but listen and be accessible to those who wish to engage. I don't have the luxury of data you guys have, but in the UK we believe there is another sign which could be added to the list, indicating it is now a mass medium.

Social media marketing


I couldn't agree more with that social media isn't just (or even primarily) about marketing!

That said, I'm a marketer writing on a marketing blog for a marketing audience (as noted in the header). So, if there's a marketing bias here on this blog, that's why!