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The Big Story: Inside media’s 12 splintering realities

“America is splintering into more than a dozen news bubbles based on ideology, wealth, jobs, age and location. Instead of Red America and Blue America, we’ll have a dozen or more Americas — and realities.”

Whatever you once thought about reaching your target audience is wrong.

By David Jarrard & David Shifrin

4-minute read

Traditional media is dead, say some. Social media is dying, say others. Blue collars are leaning conservative, say the polls. Gen Z and Millennials trust algorithms over broadcasters, says Vogue.

An upside-down time for marketers. Remember “mass communications?” Now, it’s dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!

The splintering of audiences and the rise and fall of media old and new “means where you get your news, the voices you trust, and even the topics and cultural figures you follow could be wholly different from the person sitting next to you,” says Axios.

“This will make understanding public opinion, and finding common agreement, even more complex and elusive.”

It makes finding and engaging these fragmented audiences – wrapped snug as they are in isolated, self-affirming media blankets – harder, too. (We’re glad to be in here with you, BTW.)

Pick your metaphor: News bubbles, echo chambers, shards of glass. They all work.

That audiences are increasingly divided in how they consume information is not news. It’s the expanding array of discrete bubbles, the shifting composition of who’s in each and the unique channels to reach them that has communicators sharpening their pencils again.

This is a special challenge for healthcare providers, of course.

Because of healthcare’s mission and broken business model, every patient, voter, donor, opinion leader and colleague matters.

Healthcare communicators must find them, even as they hop down their individual media-consuming rabbit trails.

The puzzle to solve is not how marketers reach everyone all the time. It’s how best to reach the right audience at the moment they need to be reached. To paraphrase Orwell, every audience is equally important, but some are more important than others.

Remember those bygone days when they called this work “mass communications”?

Now, down a hundred rabbit holes we go.

Yes, and…

Audience fragmentation is not new and not static. It’s like the bits of colored glass that shift in a kaleidoscope as you turn the wheel. New vehicles, interests and voices are expected. Today, Axios says we have 12 “realities”? Tomorrow it may be 20. The evolution calls for constant attention, yes, but not constant surprise. What do we know?

Bubbles don’t buy, people do

Of course not. Media “bubbles” are a handy metaphor for thinking about how people consume information, but it speaks less about how they behave as patients and consumers. Avoid being overly distracted by interesting but ancillary forms of segmentation.

Fragmentation means that your marketing buys will be more targeted and increasingly reliant on digital platforms – hard to target a billboard, after all. Increasing competition will also drive up cost: Every provider wants to connect with moms on Instagram.

Yes, marketing is experiencing a shift in how purchasing decisions are made, led by Gen Z. No longer the classic funnel, “consumption today is an infinite loop of inspiration, exploration, community and loyalty.”

Still, the process of targeting and audience building is largely the same as it has been. And there are places where many American congregate – TikTok’s usage grew from about one in five adults to one in three between 2021-2023. Budget more dollars, watch the shifting landscape, but don’t scrap the playbook.

Your C-suite is a bubble, too

Finer targeting means fewer people will be targeted by any given campaign. To some in the wrong bubble, it may appear your marketing efforts have disappeared with those billboards.

We’re thinking here of your C-Suite leaders, your high-volume vocal physicians (looking at you, orthopods), board members and others who need the assurance that marketing is happening, even if they are not the audience you’re working to reach.

Treat this leadership group as a segmented audience in need of its own kind of communication campaign.

Local media still works

Local broadcast news remains a powerful way to reach key patient populations, especially in rural markets. Radio, too. Larger, urban hospitals may want to do the same as part of spoke-and-hub models of care and referral patterns.

If, in the past, local TV was a panacea, it’s much less so now. But as a generally trusted local news source, it can be an important ingredient in your recipe. Want to reach the older set? That spot right before the weather forecast can be a strong position.

There is always a new, new thing

In November 2022, The Atlantic ran a column titled, “The Age of Social Media Is Ending.” Now, Axios’ not-dead-yet obituary reads “social media, as [traditional media’s] replacement for news in the internet era, is declining in dominance.”

Twitter/X went from being a reliable marketing and advertising tool to a volatile wildcard. Meta/Facebook is limiting its “political content” without defining what that means. And TikTok? Even as four in ten users say they regularly get news there, the threat to ban it in the US is active.

Everyone is waiting for what comes next. AI maybe, but so far it’s more of a tool than a channel. Video has been the next big thing for a long time, but standalone video platforms haven’t yet shown enough stability and longevity for true viability.

While they wait, savvy marketers are experimenting with tools and platforms. Test this, try that, even within limited budgets. When the next thing blossoms, they are ready.

Audience fragmentation is not necessarily audience division

In our political hothouse, the discussion of audience fragmentation can lead to a conclusion that we are hopelessly divided as a community and as a country. There’s a reason Hollywood’s Civil War opened in theaters this weekend.

But even the latest public opinion polls find that US adults agree on a lot. A big poll by the Associated Press this month finds “large majorities of the public agree when it comes to the importance of many of the rights and freedoms provided in the Bill of Rights, various laws, or court rulings.”

That’s right, says a different just-released survey by NPR, whose report says, “Americans are More United Than Divided.”

Shared beliefs and common ground are a hopeful, powerful thing. Add to that an even deeper human need: to feel part of something and to feel seen. This is the greatest opportunity for healthcare marketers. Yes, people are seeking communities. Yes, those communities may be shrinking. And yes, the demands for segmentation and audience-specific messages on diverse platforms are becoming ever more complex.

It’s true, of course. Audiences are more fragmented and the media landscape to reach them is energetically chaotic.

Careful segmentation is helpful for healthcare not only for reaching consumers with tailored messages to meet their specific healthcare needs, but also to address lightning rod social issues such as women’s reproductive care, transgender care, DEI and health equity. Marketers should be mindful of how people will process and understand messages around these ever more delicate topics.

Where, who and how to reach them – and leveraging it your advantage – is today’s work for healthcare communicators, laser-focused on supporting their organization’s business and policy strategies.

Take the pointy end of your sharp marketing strategy and burst those bubbles.