Social Media Disrupting Market Landscape

by Chris Kenton on April 10, 2008

I’m still deep in the self-imposed exile of stealth startup mode. But there are some fascinating market and business trends in Social Media that I’m closely tracking and happy to discuss in the abstract, especially as they start to intersect with other discussions in the public sphere.

One of the trends that I’ve been analyzing in some depth over the past few months is the dynamic of social media conversations that span traditional market boundaries–geographic, demographic and psychographic boundaries, as well as other boundaries that are not neatly defined, in part because no one has had to really classify them before. But the Internet is a vast melting pot where conversations involve people that never would have connected in the physical world. The way that influences and transforms the discussion is remarkable. And from a market standpoint, it’s game changing.

If you track the social media conversations in any of the hot consumer markets, a lot of the market driving memes emerge in the first couple of weeks. You learn quickly what kinds of questions consumers are asking, what they complain about, what they hope to see in the future. But when you follow those conversations across many different channels over a few months, some deeper trends emerge that are a clear sign of the future. I’ll give just one example now, but I’ll explore some additional examples over the next few weeks.

One of the clearest market changing trends is the globalization of market conversations. Back in the day when people talked about the Information Superhighway, the reduction of geographic boundaries was one of the most popular tropes that marketers used to signify the new world we were creating. You’d see commercials with a New York executive chatting on a cell phone with a Buddhist monk in Asia, or with a tribal leader in Africa. The exotic contrasts of business suits juxtaposed with colorful costumes made for great marketing imagery. But now that global dialog is a mundane reality, it’s less the mixing of sharply different groups of people online that is changing the market than the reduction of smaller boundaries–the blending of parallel market segments into a larger homogenized whole.

One of the most obvious and striking examples is visible in the automotive market, where hundreds of conversations take place daily on every conceivable channel of social media across the globe. If you follow these conversations for any length of time, you begin to realize just how anachronistic our current marketing landscape is today. Our markets evolved in a world where large markets like Europe, North America and Asia were entirely distinct. As an American abroad, it was somewhat surprising to see entirely different and unrecognizable Fords being sold overseas, or seeing diesel sports cars that you can’t buy in the US. In fact, the cultural and regulatory landscape that evolved in these isolated consumer megaspheres created entirely different but parallel markets. For example,both Europe and North America have evolved environmentally conscious automotive consumers, but in the US we’ve embraced hybrid vehicles while in Europe they’ve embraced clean diesels.

But social media is making these differences seem rather quaint. If you follow the dialog on blogs and forums, you’ll find Europeans talking to Americans, who are talking to Asians, who are talking to Africans, and on it goes. And they’re all asking why we have one thing and you have another, which inevitably leads to why can’t I have what you have. Europeans increasingly want hybrids, and Americans increasingly want clean diesels. Honda recently announced a diesel hybrid for the European market, and within weeks thousands of consumers in North America had signed onto a petition demanding Honda offer the same car in America.

You don’t have to be an ivory-tower marketing guru to see what will happen in the next five years. Automakers will start offering similar vehicles in what used to be sharply defined and isolated market segments, which will have enormous economic benefits for the automakers, and maybe for consumers as the cost of more standardized production and marketing falls. But the longer term future is a little less clear. While the initial impact of global social media seems to lead toward a large-scale homogenization of global consumer tastes, this is in striking contrast to the phenomena of long tail economics. There is plenty of evidence that mainstream tastes often spur a backlash against consumer conformity, and the ability for smaller consumer segments to congeal online does create demand for more highly differentiated products.

It may be that Social Media’s long-term impact is a fundamental shift of scale that defined these large and small market segments. Social media seems to be accelerating the merging of isolated global markets in megamarkets, while what we now now as micromarkets will also grow in a similar scale under the influence of global consumer conversations. In any case, it’s clear that Social Media is creating an enormous transforming influence on consumer markets, and the implications for marketing are just as significant. If you’re not actively following the conversations that are changing your market–beyond just what your customers are saying about your product–you really should be. The future is being written right before our eyes.

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