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Brands & Media

Brand Marketing And The Illusion Of Faster

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It’s said that the marketplace is cycling faster than ever these days. No doubt this is true, but at least a part of this sensation of a brisker pace is an illusion that brand marketers should scrutinize carefully.

The iconic illustration of faster cycles is the oft-cited speed at which media technologies have reached an audience of 50 million. Radio, it is claimed, took 38 years to reach 50 million; TV, 13 years; the Internet, four years. It’s a very dramatic recitation. But it’s urban legend. It’s hard to know this, though, without a lot of spadework. A Google search returns well over 130 million Web pages with some mention of these data, and very few of these pages cite any independent authority.

For example, a United Nations report authoritatively references these data. Many other authorities cite this U.N. report. Yet, the report itself footnotes no primary sources.  Additionally, the U.N. report presents these data as if they apply to worldwide audiences, even though audience sizes are difficult if not impossible to measure in much of the world. So it’s no surprise that the pertinent geography of this urban myth occasionally gets confused. A Goldman Sachs report published during the height of the dot-com bubble asserted that these data related to media technology growth in Asia.

Ground zero for this urban legend appears to be a 1998 U.S. Department of Commerce report that relied on a 1997 Morgan Stanley report on Internet retailing co-authored by legendary Internet analyst Mary Meeker. The geography issue, at least, is resolved because both of these reports cite these data for the U.S. marketplace. But the Morgan Stanley report contains only vague references to primary sources, making it tough to independently examine the underlying figures. This is not to suggest anything untoward, only to take notice of the fact that these data buttress a central belief about the nature of the 21st century digital marketplace, so it seems entirely appropriate to apply the time-honored principle of trust but verify.

That is exactly what Gisle Hannemyr did in an article for a 2003 issue of The Internet Society. Hannemyr’s Internet bona fides are impressive. In 1991, he co-founded the first ISP in Norway, and later, other Internet businesses. In 2003, Norwegian members of an association of entrepreneurs and investors called First Tuesday voted him Internet personality of the decade.

In a meticulous and exhaustively referenced analysis of media audience growth, Hannemyr traced the origins and early history of the three media at issue (along with the telephone, a communications technology notably omitted from the Morgan Stanley growth comparisons). Then, compiling audience data from all available sources, Hannemyr computed an estimate of adoption rates. Details of Hannemyr’s analysis are readily accessible, so there is no need to belabor them here. It’s his bottom-line that’s key.

Radio, TV and the Internet all reached an audience of 50 million in less than ten years.  Each medium did so between year five and year ten. Yet, the urban myth of 38, 13 and four years lives on. Contrary to popular belief, media take off no faster today than before, and in fact, take much longer to become mainstream.

Consider radio. The base year for radio is 1920, when the population of the U.S. was 106.5 million. Ten years later, the population was 123.1 million. By then, Hannemyr estimates a U.S. radio audience of 56 million, or about 45 percent of the population. Over this period, the number of radio listeners grew by a number almost three-and-one-half times the number by which the population grew.

Now contrast radio with the Internet. The base year for the Internet is 1989, when the U.S. population was 246.8 million. In 1999, the U.S. population was 279 million, so to have reached radio’s coverage of 45 percent a decade after its base year, the Internet audience would have to have been 125.6 million. But Hannemyr estimates it at just 79 million, or 28 percent of the U.S. population.

(By the way, similar ratios are true even using 38 years and four years as comparison points for reaching an audience size of 50 million.)

The growth of the Internet has been spectacular, but the take-up rate of radio was more spectacular. Ten years in, radio had captured almost half the total population; the Internet, just over one-quarter. Over that ten-year period, radio gained nearly three-and-one-half people for every person the total population grew. For the Internet, it was just under two-and-one-half.

This is not to mention that radio faced a tougher challenge getting to a milestone of 50 million people. For radio, that required getting a much larger proportion of the total.  Fifty million was equal to about half the U.S. population in radio’s base year, compared to 20 percent in the base year for the Internet.

Of course, it could be argued that the Internet actually faced tougher sledding because of all the competition for attention it faced that radio did not. But that’s just more evidence that media take hold more slowly these days. With so many media technologies available, consumers take longer to adopt new ones.

The issue this urban myth raises for brand marketers is one of priorities. Because it is longer and harder, not faster and easier, for new media technologies to build a mass audience, media planning can proceed with calculated deliberation instead of breathlessly pinballing from one new thing to the next. It also means that most new media will go through long periods as niche media for early adopters.

The cultural footprint of today’s new media turns out to be bigger than their actual shoe sizes, which is a planning consideration of more importance than speed of adoption. New media today can have a big impact without mass penetration.

Twitter is a prime example. Its cultural importance is indisputable. But a year-long Pew Center analysis found that the reactions and opinions expressed on Twitter rarely mirror those of the population at-large. It is provocative but not representative. This shouldn’t be a surprise since only three percent of the total population report regularly or sometimes tweeting about things in the news.

This alternative perspective on take-up rates for old and new media also brings into question the place of media in the rank order of changes wrought by the Internet. Logistics, payments, pricing and service have been disrupted more by the Internet than the mix of media consumed, so this is where brand marketers can benefit most from greater attention and resources.

Certainly, media disruption is underway. But to a large extent, even this is the same as always, with new media causing old media to adapt not fold up. It is this constancy of change that offers brand marketers the best platform for navigating what’s ahead, the foundation of which is a clear and accurate understanding of how things have unfolded in the past.

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Brand Marketing And The Illusion Of Faster