Monday, December 01, 2008

The Future is Not Binary - Do we really know the Consumer?

Publishing has in the main been a mass market sector. However the digital age has turned many conventional marketing demographics and mass market views on their head. Wealth, lifestyle, age have all come under increasing scrutiny as marketers continue to try and typecast us into these boxes. The reality is that the digital explosion is acting as a great social leveller. The internet is creating vertical communities of interest that do not replace the horizontal mass market ones we know today but are often in addition to them.

Who, how and what we will read is almost impossible to predict. Ask any major media organisation if their demographics are what they expected and the answer is often no. Obviously if the content is aimed at a specific group then it is easier, but when we talk mass market material the results get more fuzzy.

So will the young be the ebook readers, whilst the older population stick to paper? Age is but a number and is a fact often ignored by marketers who often more than most from ageism. Take the recent debate on age grading children’s books. Ask who wanted it and who opposed it and why in this age it was ever conceived as wise? We all assumed that the young would inherit the Internet but consider the ‘grey army’ who today have the time, money and equal ability to master technology and are signing up and using it in their droves.

The challenge is similar to that in the late twentieth century which saw mass literacy explode into tabloid newsprint and the office automation through the typewriter. Today mass connectivity and technology familiarity is now fuelling mass change. Who doesn’t have a mobile? Who isn’t using 3G smartphones? Who doesn’t have email? Who now watches TV offline? Which house doesn’t have a computer? Who doesn’t have broadband access? The point is that we are changing our social culture, how we communicate, what we communicate, how we access and acquire knowledge, information and entertainment and how we consume or use it.

This doesn’t mean the book is dead, it merely means that some books have to change and others now need to compete differently.

One of the greatest challenges the book faces today is the sound bite, the prĂ©cis, the completion for time. It always has faced the challenge but it’s now got tougher. The second challenge is the screen. Consumer’s resistance to reading on screen is eroding fast and although many still print and read, reading online be it on a PC, laptop, notebook, mobile is becoming a social norm.

The third social change is the demand for ‘my world’ and ‘my say’. This shift from mass market to a market of one is not always about content, but the access to it and its presentation. Merely replicating the printed book online, or as an ebook, could be viewed as ignoring the individual at a time when they are increasingly demanding to be recognised. People want to be individuals and seen as such. The extension of this is clearly seen today in the blogging and feedback culture. People wish to express their views on everything and nothing and not in a straight jacketed into yesterday’s marketing response forms. Wikipedia was built by one way communication but by collaboration. Amazon reader’s reviews may seem that they are often written by the publisher or author but are more than ever written by readers. This significant democratisation is captured in Charles Leadbeatter’s book ‘We Think’.

The future isn’t the same for all publishers and the greatest challenge will remain about giving the customer what they want.

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