One common complaint I hear from marketers is that social media is not (yet) a mass medium. For example, the circulation for Cosmopolitan is 3 million, while the magazine counts just 700,000 fans in Facebook. And while it seems (almost) everyone is creating, using or consuming social media today, it is a highly fractured channel. Thirty years ago, almost every person watching television was tuned into one of three networks; today, 550 million people use Facebook, and each and every one of them is their own network.

However, the fact that social media is fractured and personalized does not mean that it isn't a mass medium; it just means it is a challenging mass medium. Here is the evidence for social as a mass medium:

  • Impressions: In a report published earlier this year, Josh Bernoff and I shared data developed using a new word-of-mouth analysis tool, Peer Influence Analysis. Forrester found that some 500 billion influence impressions about products and services are created in social media each year — a number that is sure to grow when we repeat the research in 2011. That compares to around 2 trillion online ad impressions according to Nielsen (and which do people find more persuasive and worthy of attention — ads or recommendations from friends?).
  • Media Consumption: Forrester's ongoing monitoring of the Social Technographics of US adults demonstrates that 59% are now Joiners, visiting or maintaining a profile on a social network each month. And as the number of social networkers has grown, so has the time spent. Nielsen data from June 2010 demonstrates that social networking is the top online activity, accounting for almost 1 in 4 hours spent online;  in the year prior, the share of online time spent social networking grew 43% while email shrunk 28%. If all that evidence isn't enough, watch for Facebook to surpass 600 million users in early 2011, almost one-third of Internet users globally and about 10% of the inhabitants on the planet.
  • Impact: While mainstream media loves to jump on news that casts doubt on the impact of social media (such as Pew's recent study reporting that just 8% of people use Twitter and half don't listen to tweets), it often ignores that reach and influence are not synonymous. The New York Times is read by just 1 million people but is a bellwether for the country, and the New England Journal of Medicine routinely alters health care around the world despite being read by just 600,000 people. As I've argued in the past, regardless of the numbers, social media has attained mainstream influence in the US. It delivers late-breaking news, has been adopted by celebrities and world leaders, forces changes in corporate behavior and influences the actions of governments.
  • P&G says so: If you're a marketer and all of the above doesn't convince you that social media is a mass medium, then there's this: Procter & Gamble — the company that led brands into radio and television — is again leading the way into social media. According to USA Today, P&G is exiting sponsorship and production of daytime TV dramas (a medium it helped create 77 years ago) and reducing its advertising on daytime television in order to shift budgets into social media. Says an agency executive, "Social media has become mass media, and for women especially. I think for all marketers, these one-way, 30-second (TV) spots are very expensive and are less effective for the way that women make decisions." The article cites the success of Old Spice's campaign, including 1.8 billion impression, 140 million YouTube views, and double-digit sales growth.

I find the debate over whether or not social media is a mass medium rather silly. Consumers have already decided this with their habits and actions; it's up to marketers to shift their budgets and plans accordingly. It is tough to achieve scale in such a fractured medium, but it's hardly impossible. Hawaii Five-O, the most popular new show of this television season, averages approximately 11 million viewers live plus same day while Coca-Cola’s fan page on Facebook counts almost twice as many fans. In 2011, we'll see more brands like Coke and Old Spice reach and influence the masses via social media.