Are Marketers Destroying the World?

When you read the news or scan your favorite social media platforms, do you feel like the world is going crazy? Does your online browsing fill you with a vague (or not-so-vague) sense of impending global doom? Does it seem like everyone hates everyone, nobody can agree on anything, and all public conversations have devolved into a constant “us versus them” tug-of-war? If so, it’s because we’re all being manipulated by content creators — from YouTube vloggers to Fox News talking heads to Huffington Post reporters — who are trying to make us feel certain ways because it’s the best way to make money. Let me explain…

First, let’s start with the golden rule of the Internet: if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

Pause for a moment and think about the kinds of things you use online in a given day that you don’t pay for:

  • Your email
  • Your social media
  • Your search engine
  • Your news
  • Your product reviews
  • Your maps/GPS

Now pause for another moment and think about how incredibly expensive it must be to operate those technologies for millions (and, in some cases, billions) of users. Take, for example, your phone’s navigation app. Surely mapping every road in the world isn’t cheap. Or consider the infrastructure requirements of YouTube. Surely a website with 500 hours of video content being uploaded to it every minute costs lots of money to operate.

And yet, how much are you paying Google for all those driving directions you’ve been given? How much are you paying YouTube (also Google) for all that Carpool Karaoke you’ve been binge watching?

If you’re not paying to use something, but it costs lots of money to exist (and the company behind it is worth billions of dollars), simple logic tells us the money for its existence has to come from somewhere. In most cases — particularly online content — that “somewhere” is advertising. In short, a social network like Instagram has millions of users. Companies with products to sell want access to those users, so they pay Instagram (or someone with a large following on Instagram) lots of money in order to promote their products.

Hopefully I haven’t told you anything you don’t already realize. Even if you’re not a marketing expert, you surely understand that Google makes money every time it plays an ad before a YouTube video, and Kylie Jenner makes money every time she promotes a new shade of lip gloss in her Instagram feed.

However, what most non-marketers don’t recognize about the advertising industry is the importance of audience segmentation.

After 5 years teaching Duke students about marketing and the ways content is manipulated, here’s a quick “quiz” I like giving students on the first day of my social marketing course (which, incidentally, is the day I’m publishing this piece) to demonstrate the lack of awareness about the importance of audience segmentation in content production. Let’s see how you do with the same quiz:

You have a budget of $10,000 to buy a single TV commercial slot to air your company’s new commercial, and you’re trying to decide which slot to choose. You’ve got two nearly identical options: second advertisement during the first commercial break of a one hour network TV drama. Drama A has 10,000,000 viewers. Drama B only has 500,000 viewers. Which do you choose?

All my students choose Drama A for obvious reasons: it has 20x more viewers, so 20x more people will see the commercial.

But anyone who chooses Drama A is wrong.

Of course, the savvy recipients of this question know that choosing Drama B is also wrong.

The correct response is to ask: What’s the demographic of the viewers and what’s the target demographic for the product I’m selling?

While 10,000,000 is obviously more than 500,000, a 10 million person audience of diverse viewers ranging from 13-year-olds to 75-year-olds might not be as valuable to a marketer as an audience of 500,000 people of a specific ages 65 and up. What if, for example, they’re selling adult diapers?

In other words, raw numbers don’t matter. In fact, massive audiences don’t appeal to marketers if the demographics are too diverse because it hinders their ability to create targeted messaging.

Instead, marketers want to be able to target their potential customers with highly specialized campaigns. In order to do this, they need homogenous audiences, and they’ll pay lots of money to reach those homogenous audiences.

I believe this demand from marketers for homogenous audiences — audiences that are easily segmentable and sellable — might be causing the downfall of humanity. And I’m only slightly exaggerating… maybe.

Since content producers — everyone from CNN to Breitbart to PewDiePie — are funding their businesses by selling advertising, and the most valuable advertising they can sell is demographics-based as opposed to volume-based, they create content that intentionally attracts certain demographics while intentionally alienating other demographics.

In the current culture, some people call this “polarizing” content, and other people call this “fake news.” Whatever you call it, the purpose of the content isn’t to properly educate or inform people. The purpose of the content — from a business perspective — is to segment demographics because segmented audiences are more valuable and easier to sell to marketers.

So next time you’re browsing Instagram and feel like the world is destroying itself, or next time you read a news article and feel like the “other side” is being crazy or stupid or ignorant or whatever other “us versus them” thought you might have, take a moment to think carefully about the business model of the person/entity that profits from the content you’re seeing. Someone is probably trying to segment you based on your age, your gender, your race, your income, and dozens of other less obvious characteristics. It’s not necessarily wrong, and it’s not necessarily right, but it is the world we live in. The more people realize this, the less effective it will be, and it might limit the profitability of homogeneous audiences. By limiting the profitability of homogeneous audiences we might — MIGHT — be able to wrestle back some sense of objectivity in the content we consume. But don’t count on it.

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @

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