Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Through the looking-glass

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

By following the herd, marketers have transferred offline's obsession with youth onto the internet

'The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: "No room! No room!" they cried out when they saw Alice coming. "There's plenty of room!" said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.'

The image of the March Hare, the Hatter and the Dormouse squashed together at one end of the table, apparently unaware that they could spread out, is a familiar one. It illustrates two linked human characteristics: the drive to conform to social norms, and the inability to conceive of an idea beyond those established by the group.

So as seven-year-old footballers chase after the ball like a shoal of fish, investors pile in on the highs and avoid the market when it's low. They are all capable of making choices for themselves, but instead follow the crowd, saving themselves the time and intellectual investment.

It's a phenomenon we see online, where received wisdom is imported wholesale from traditional media, without challenge or interpretation. For as long as I can remember, marketers and media folk have obsessed about reaching young, upmarket consumers - even when the core markets for their products don't fall into either of these groups.

At first sight, this is counter-intuitive. After all, older people have got more money - and they spend it. According to the Office for National Statistics, those aged between 30 and 59 spend 27% more on clothing and footwear than do the under-30s, and 16% more on alcohol and tobacco.

Apart from the tendency of planners to imbue consumers with their own characteristics, to a large degree this youth bias is a tactic designed to offset the natural tendency of many media to deliver older, more downmarket audiences. The National Readership Survey tells us that just 36% of those aged under 44 read national newspapers, compared with 50% of the over-45s, and 16- to 24-year-olds watch 30% less TV than the adult average.

Yet media planners are constantly asked to deliver young, upmarket audiences online, simply because that's been set as the target for offline media.
There's no shortage of these folk online. Internet users are substantially more economically active than their offline counterparts - while just 15% of the world's population has access to broadband, those people represent 84% of global GDP. And they are younger, with all the major portals substantially overrepresented by 15- to 34-year-olds against the average for UK population.

So importing this planning bias into online media means there's a double concentration on youth, and ignores the real target audience.

It isn't just planners who cluster together, though - buyers do it too, with the vast majority of revenue still going to the top 10 sales points. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard marketers complain that the plans they're given by their agencies are indistinguishable from product to product, with the usual suspects appearing on every schedule.

Sometimes this comfortably familiar behaviour is derived from business constraints at agencies, few of which challenge the status quo. But it represents a herd mentality in media planning that lets advertisers down, because by failing to ask fundamental questions, it doesn't reflect the way users consume web media.

There is an almost infinite variety of environments, audiences, interests and locations online. Do we all have to bunch up at one end of the table?

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written by English author Lewis Carroll, was published in 1865. The book was originally illustrated by John Tenniel.
  • In the story, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in a strange world populated by characters such as Bill the Lizard, The Cheshire Cat and The Mock Turtle.
  • Films of the story include Disney's animated version (1951) and the Japanese anime interpretation, Fushigi no Kuni no Alice (1983). Tim Burton's adaptation, due for release next year, stars Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter.
  • Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98), who, before finding fame through the Alice books, was a published lecturer in mathematics.
  • Lewis wrote a sequel story, Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There, which contained new characters including Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty and the Jabberwock.

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