Trends for 2013: What Fragmentation Means for ‘Critical Mass’.

Decades of channel expansion have made fragmentation an indelible feature of the marketing landscape. One of the curious qualities of fragmentation is that it yields audiences that appear large in aggregate form, but are actually smaller in real terms. This quality tends to hold true regardless of channel.

For example, more consumers watch TV, and indeed, by eMarketer’s calculations, watch more of it, but those larger audiences are dispersed across multiple screens, or stream TV content to their PCs and smart devices. With rare exception, the mass audience accustomed to appointment viewing is long gone.

Viewership data for the evening news on the major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) serves as an effective proxy for this shift. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual “The State of the News Media 2012” study, the evening news audience is less than half of what it was in 1980. Some of the core audience that used to tune in nightly has aged out, but most of it has dispersed among the numerous cable alternatives. More significantly, it’s no longer concentrated in the same daypart, thanks to the on-demand availability of even TV news.

Moreover, what used to be a mass audience on TV is now dispersed across other platforms. Consumers’ attention is more divided than ever as media multitasking becomes the norm. Formerly linear consumption activity, defined by appointments with specific media, is now a tangle of simultaneous activities, some related, some not. TV remains at the center of this multitasking, but more often than not, there is another screen more directly in front of the viewer.

An added wrinkle is fragmentation within fragmentation. Consumers divide their time and attention not only among different media channels, access platforms and devices but also among subchannels within the same media. This is obviously the case with TV, where “channels” has a more literal meaning, but it is also particularly acute with mobile.

Consumers’ media fragmentation is often dictated by the sophistication of their devices (eMarketer expects the feature phone-smartphone balance to tip in favor of smartphones by the end of 2013, at 56% of all mobile users). The smartphone audience is further split by platform, with Android the clear leader based on the sheer number of manufacturers building phones for the Google-sponsored mobile OS, and Apple’s iOS a solid second. Those same smartphone users also are divided by where they spend their time. By Nielsen’s calculations, the overall amount of time smartphone owners spend with apps is increasing faster than their time spent with the mobile web.

In this context, “critical mass” has a much different meaning than it did, 10 or even five years ago. On the surface, there is a critical mass of TV viewers, smartphone and tablet owners, and mobile web users. But digging below the surface exposes the fragmentation into micro-audiences. A return to the prior model seems highly unlikely; if anything, the challenges associated with fragmentation will only proliferate, necessitating a shift in both strategy and focus for marketers that want to keep up with their audiences.

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