Founder & Managing Director
On the democratization and fragmentation of the communication landscape
In 2005, the New York Times weekday print edition had a circulation of 1.1 million. Twitter had no users at all – not entirely surprising as the company had not been founded. Twelve years later, in 2017, the daily printed NYT circulation came down to 540k. Twitter, on the other hand, summoned roughly as many monthly active users as people live in the United States: around 330 million.
These numbers, despite comparing apples with oranges to a certain extent, impressively demonstrate the paradigm shift from classic media to the opinion-making superpower ‘social media’ – a shift from editorial content of a few to everybody’s content. Today, everyone is not only a communicator but also a multiplier; the general dependence on intermediaries has dramatically decreased. The prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave are suddenly set free. And they started to explore the peculiar world of communications on their own.
Take, for example, CEOs who are portrayed by traditional media in a certain way, but who do not recognize themselves in the picture painted by journalists. These executives can start communicating directly with their stakeholders and build their own profile by circumventing intermediaries. It shows: Everyone can be the author of their own story, the curator of their own reality. But it also allows them to circumvent the filter and fact checking function of intermediaries.
No matter which conclusions we draw, we see an inevitable transformation of our profession’s stakeholder ecosystem as the democratization of communications has led to an unprecedented level of fragmentation, essentially affecting three areas:
1. There’s a shift from the monodirectional sender-to-receiver paradigm to a multidirectional and multi-layered conversation: sender with intermediary, sender with receiver, receiver with receiver, and so on. Communicators thus need to turn from gatekeepers into versatile facilitators.
2. As the number of players multiplies so does the number of channels. Channels that are created within minutes and easily accessible by everyone, have almost global reach, and require 24/7 attention. We are living in an ‘always on’ connected world which ushers communications into real-time stakeholder dialogue.
3. With more players and channels in the game the content changes, too. One size fits all has always been a bad fit. But with individualized stakeholder needs and wants – multiplied by channel complexity – this concept has finally become a convenient way to burn money.
Axel Löber, Nicole Mommsen and Frank Sielaff
The key to survival in this contextual mayhem is resource allocation. Given the multitude of topics we are confronted with we communicators tend to be all over the place. This easily leads to fragmented efforts in a fragmented environment. Eventually, strategy is about “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities”, as John Lewis Gaddis wrote in On Grand Strategy.
Choosing our battles wisely, however, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to succeed in the era of democratized communication. The one factor that elevates what we do above the clouds of clutter is relevance. And relevance is achieved by:
- Following Simon Sinek’s advice to “start with why”, i.e. purpose. That seemingly obvious first step tends to be the most underrated one. “Most time is lost because people do not think things through to the very end”, German banker Alfred Herrhausen once said. Without a clear purpose and objective things get messy in the long run – and are not measurable anyway.
- Asking ourselves: Who are our audiences and how can we reach them? What do they want to know? What is credible for us to say? The widely used target group definition ‘general public’ has always been communications’ preferred smoke grenade as it in reality refers to 7.5 billion people. Aiming at everyone means being relevant to no one.
- Thinking outside-in rather than inside-out: What is trending this week or, more importantly, what will be trending next week? In addition to the What comes the How: stakeholders expect conversational content experiences when interacting with brands. Wastelands of text (like this one) are mainly for nerds like the three of us.
- And by diversifying the portfolio of intermediaries. The media will remain an important part of our work. Their impact, however, will most likely continue to decline. We thus need to leverage the potential of influencers, bloggers, and the most powerful group of advocates available: employees and their families and friends.
Some communicators seem to perceive the democratization and fragmentation of the communication landscape as a constant uphill battle which can be outflanked or, worse, avoided by reverting to time-honoured tactics. It’s a futile fight against losing control as control is already lost – if we ever had it in the first place.
Social media has put our stakeholders inevitably in the driver seat. To avoid the fate of traditional media outlets that are still struggling to find the right recipes against declining reach and relevance, we as communicators need to adapt quickly. Hermann Hesse wrote: “Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.” One might argue that leaving beloved ballast behind frees us up to be agile for the new and unexpected.
Read in part three of our four-part series: How the interaction between humans and algorithms changes the way we manage communications.