It’s 8.10am and the DART is packed, standing room only, yet it is oddly silent.
Obviously people aren’t at their most loquacious on a stuffed train first thing in the morning, but what is extraordinary is just how many people are on their mobile devices, reading, scrolling down, tweeting, emailing or just surfing. If you want to understand just how ubiquitous social media is, catch the train and watch your fellow passengers for a few minutes.
Last weekend I was at the brilliant Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool, chatting to Liverpool supporters about the 96 fans who died in Hillsborough. My own memory of the event is hazy but I do remember living in Belgium at the time and only finding out about the awful calamity at Hillsborough a few days after the event. Such a delay would never happen now.
The people on the Dart have access to more information than any security or intelligence agent operating with the most sophisticated techniques and networks only a few short years ago.
This change in how we interact is crucial to understand if you are in the business of selling anything. Social media is the single most important disruptive technology we have seen in a generation primarily because it is actually changing the way we behave. It is changing our concentration spans and points of reference and our capacity to absorb messages and information.
Obviously it has enormous implications for secrecy, both personal in the case of people’s day-to-day lives, and institutionally, post-Snowden and Wikileaks, in the case of a state’s ability to surreptitiously track people’s movements and conversations.
However, where it will have — and is having — an enormous impact is in advertising. Because it is free, it has the potential to make very small companies very big and create a David-and-Goliath dynamic in marketing and branding because it is changing the rules and the terrain in which companies compete with each other to get their message out.
In his latest book, ‘David and Goliath’, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point again and again that the underdog can win by fighting the incumbent, not on the incumbent’s terms but on the underdog’s terms. Starting with the shepherd boy David, Gladwell traces many brilliant instances where the little guy beats the favourite by using different tactics.
Commercially, for small companies social media is a terrain changer. More than that, it is evolving all the time and advertisers who are deploying resources to on-line and social media should be aware of these changes.
The normal refrain we hear from ‘seasoned’ marketers is that social media is still the preserve of teenagers. This is not the case.
In fact, this week Facebook’s chief financial bod, David Ebersman, caused a bit of a stir by admitting that “usage among US teens overall was stable from Q2 to Q3, but we did see a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens”.
Admitting that early teenagers were not using Facebook as much as before caused Facebook’s share price to wobble a little, but social media is changing. All across the medium we are seeing enormous changes in who is online, for how long, what are they doing and how they are accessing social media.
Recently, Fast Company — the bible for many new companies — published a fascinating article documenting statistical changes you didn’t know about social media. The data captures worldwide trends so there is every reason to believe that the trends are the same in Ireland.
Here are seven big trends that have huge implications for marketing and advertising:
* Social media is getting older, quickly. The fastest growing demographic on Twitter is the 55-64- year-old age group. This may surprise you. This age group’s usage has gown 79pc in the past year. Now the fastest growing demographic on Facebook and Google+ is the 44-55- years-old group. This is up 46pc on Facebook and 56pc on Google+.
* 189 million Facebook users are mobile only. They are not using it on laptops but on phones. Already 30pc of all Facebook’s ad revenue comes from mobile devices.
* Social media has taken over from porn as the number one activity online. It is not a fad but is becoming a part of people’s daily habits and, if you doubt that, consider the next surprising fact.
* A quarter of all smartphone users between 18 and 44 can’t remember the last time their smartphones were not beside them. Over 60pc of all smartphone users have their phone on and beside them for all but one hour of their working day.
* 93pc of all American companies use social media for marketing. This is a huge figure and shows the upside that companies see in this largely free medium. Yet only 9pc of US companies use a committed blogger to get their message out. This is a challenge for old-fashioned marketers because there is a knack to using social media and it isn’t as easy as transferring print or TV techniques to the online world and hoping for the best.
* YouTube reaches more American adults from the ages of 18 to 34 than any US cable-network. This shows the importance of videos in this new world. For example, I only realised how significant this could be when, a little while back, I teamed up with an animator to use short YouTube videos/cartoons to explain economics under the name Punk Economics. We expected to get a few thousand hits on YouTube but thus far the series has received 500,000 views. We are doing this for fun and to provide information to interested people for whom economics is often shrouded in difficult language, but can you imagine the impact of something like this with a committed team?
* One million websites are integrated with Facebook. This shows you how important it is to have a social media aspect to online strategies and how the terrain is evolving.
Looking around the Dart carriage, it’s easy to see there is a massive audience that is changing the way in which we receive messages and information and, more importantly, how we engage with it.
For small companies, it is a disruptive technology, which offers all sorts of opportunities to re-make the terrain. For Irish companies exporting it is a cheap way to let the world know about them and their products. And for the advertising industry here and elsewhere, it is an opportunity to create a parallel Madison Avenue online.
David McWilliams hosts the Winter Tales’ book festival at Dalkey on December 7. Tickets www.dalkeybookfestival.org