The Gapped Society and what it means for communications

8pm on Thursday May 28th this year saw the final Clap for Our Carers and will have marked the high-water mark, but also the end, of something that we in the communications and marketing world have taken for granted for over 150 years.  That something? Mass society. And the mass communications and the mass media that went with it.

A year ago, the idea that mass communications were in terminal decline wouldn’t have seemed controversial. The ever-lengthening long tail of content, the proliferation of channel and platform choices, the fragmentation of popular music, the sharp decreases in the readership, viewership and listenership of the tabloids, the flagship TV channels, and the national radio stations all pointed the same way. To a much more individualised and atomised media.

And a year ago, there was more than a hint that it wasn’t just the mass media that was fragmenting. The fault lines of IndyRef and Brexit, and the global impact of identity politics all suggested that our society was starting to fissure in some fundamental ways.

But then COVID arrived. The Dunkirk Spirit was evoked. We were one nation united under lockdown. And for ten successive weeks, we emerged from our internal exile every Thursday to Clap For Our Carers, culminating at 8pm on its final night, May 28th in the UK’s largest-ever mass participation event.

Superficially, the experience of COVID brought us together like never before. The reality though has been that every single pre-existing gap in our society has widened under the stress and experience of COVID.  It’s opened up a wider gap between:

  • Thrivers and the survivors: the two-thirds of the working population whose income has been unaffected by COVID and the growing number of dependents on food banks and free school meals.
  • Young and old: a gap in suffering, but also a physical gap with the aged unvisited in care homes, and the young barred from bars.
  • Digital divide: between households with superfast broadband, multiple laptops, and Prime accounts, and the digitally excluded, struggling to connect multiple children with their education through a single shared mobile.  
  • Majority and minority communities: across almost every demographic split the experience of COVID for BAME people has been significantly worse than for the wider population.
  • Minority communities: more than ever the wide disparity of infection and mortality rates between different groups shows that “BAME” tells us who people aren’t, but not usefully who they are.

All this adds up to a simple truth.  We no longer live in a mass society.

Instead, we live in a gapped society. A society where the gaps – the things that divide us – have more impact and effect than the things we share and have in common.

That means that we need to re-evaluate how we think about media and communications channels.  As the gaps have grown, the value has shifted: it’s no longer about the ability to deliver mass audiences, but the capability to cross the last mile, to reach into fragmented communities.

In some cases that might be a literal last mile – we’ve seen through the pandemic how mass communications have struggled to communicate effectively into minority communities in specific towns and cities – but it’s also sometimes a more metaphorical last mile of relevance and engagement with geographically dispersed groups, defined by ideologies or issues.  Crossing that last mile and connecting with those gapped communities means that communications need to speak with a different voice. Instead of distant, and bland, they need to speak with the close and the authentic voice that comes from within communities. To connect in our increasingly gapped society, messages need to spark and echo within communities rather than broadcast at them from without.

This will be a challenge for many traditional advertisers and agencies. It means embracing a world in which the value isn’t delivered so much by a single media buy, as by the engagement with a local community and its influencers. And where a message will be delivered in myriad different ways, as its flexes to reflect the specificities of that community, rather than with Stalinist uniformity.  That world, where the effectiveness of communications comes from a decentralised, localised network of community influencers, rather than singular broadcast campaigns, and where content creation is shared with communities rather than monopolised by a WC1 creative department, is going to be a new and scary place for many traditional agencies.

But not for us. The Network in our name reflects the reality of how we’ve been operating since we were born. Not as a traditional agency, but as the strategic and creative facilitators of networks of community activists, influencers, and creators: from faith leaders to sports clubs, community journalists and youth leaders. The people, organisations and institutions who make up the fabric of the lives of our audiences.  We work in partnership our Networks to help make change from within our audience and build lasting capacity amongst those who will be on the front line of tackling the issues their communities face for years to come.  That’s not a new way of working for us: it’s baked into our operating system. We’re built for our gapped society.