January 16, 2012

Personalized, on-demand media is isolating us

We are moving toward a world of mass customization.  We want our own personalized version of the news to arrive in our email each morning.  We rely on LinkedIn and Facebook for status updates from our friends and professional network, reading the articles they’ve chosen to share. We browse the tweets of those we follow. With the mass amount of content available to us at the push of a button, it’s no wonder we need help sorting through it all, with our preferences taking precedent.  But what are we losing in our pursuit of customization? Will mass media even have a role in the future?

This thought came to me as I was watching MuchMusic. A new evening routine after dinner, my three kids and I switch on videos and dance around the living room.  (At the risk of sounding ‘ancient’, videos these days are really pushing new boundaries! And that’s when we switch back to TreeHouse.) I haven’t watched videos since probably my university days.  And at that time, you’d sit and watch video after video  – some creative “cinematography” if I can call it that, but mostly just junk.

As my kids and I wait in anticipation for a fun dance tune to come on, we often come across new music that is actually quite enjoyable, and we’ve since added new songs to our list of dance favourites. But in a world of iPods and content customization where we only see the music genres or artists we like, we never would’ve come across these new songs.

Political leanings is another area where I see the danger in too much personalization of information. As a former political science major, I recall one professor advising us that we should regularly read perspectives that are counter to own. A left-wing supporter would do well to read the National Post on a regular basis.  A conservative may want to tune into CBC Radio on occasion.   This helps us understand another viewpoint, either giving us a broader perspective on an issue or perhaps even reinforcing our original point.  Otherwise, is it possible that engaging in media that too closely aligns with our position or preference will in fact limit our understanding and acceptance of other viewpoints?

What does this trend mean for public relations? As a communicator vying for the consumer’s attention, is a mass media strategy even effective anymore?  It’s interesting that many companies say that they want a more targeted approach in their PR programs, yet they still go ‘ga-ga’ over coverage in a major daily paper.   Social media is no doubt driving this pursuit of content customization, but what is interesting are the stories that still rise to the top.  From my observations, no matter how specific and customized you’ve made the information you receive, there’s no avoiding mass media stories. Even my Dad, who reads little more online than what’s happening in the stock markets will know that the Prince William and Kate Middleton wedding was the hottest celebrity story last year.   And everyone still finds cat videos on YouTube hysterical.

And good thing.  Not to mention how boring a family dinner would be if the stock market was the only topic of discussion, but we don’t want to become a society of specialists.  If we only read what interests us then how do we develop new interests? How do new artists, innovative political policies, or companies with great products breakthrough? Maybe if you were Steve Jobs, you could “tell the customer what they want” but this enviably position doesn’t happen overnight.

For the communicator, the revelation here is not new.  The onus continues to be on us to tailor the message; but we need to play in all forms of media – we no longer have the luxury of only strategizing around how to make the news of the day. We have to develop an authentic, meaningful voice that engages a niche audience.  Our PR plans need to take this holistic approach into account more than ever and trust that quality content, regardless of how customized our information preferences become, will reach that mass audience.

(For more on this topic, read this interview with Eli Pariser, Author of The Filter Bubble)



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