Many Americans grew up in the era of “mass production.” Going back to Henry Ford’s creation of the moving assembly line, the Model T in one color only -- black -- and his carefully partitioned jobs, mass production was the key to high output and high efficiency for much of the 20th century. Auto companies thrived on it, as did many other industries.
During this same era, “mass media” and its use for advertising and promotion was the only way to launch a big new product and publicize it widely. Network television evolved to provide the media for mass advertising. Major television networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- grew to dominate the broadcast airwaves reaching tens of millions of viewers each day. “Massification” was truly in control.
Then, some time around mid-20th century, the multi-functional department stores symbolized by Montgomery Ward, Sears, Roebuck and Company and J. C. Penney began the process of being bypassed by “mass retailers” selling at very low, discount prices. Kmart, Walmart and Target were created and grew like crazy. The original three general merchandise firms languished while specialty firms, such as L. L. Bean and Land’s End, grew.
Large city newspapers, symbolized by The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and national magazines like Time and Newsweek provided the print version of mass news, mass marketing and mass communications. The golden age of marketing was built on mass media, mass communications and a mass message broadcast to everyone.
Then, the Internet cannibalized classified newspaper advertising, and newspapers suffered. As Internet news spread on sites like Yahoo!, Google and MSN, the demand for editorial content in newspapers shrunk, and staff was eliminated. Then the multitude of retailers, the leading advertiser in newspapers, consolidated dramatically and newspaper ad pages dropped like a rock. Today, only a few newspapers remain strong, growing and profitable. (The Wall Street Journal and USA Today now lead the pack.) Most are limping along today, marginally in business, and a fraction of their once powerful stature.
Here’s the news flash, which is not such big news by now: the era of “mass” is over. Some would say it has been for a decade or more. As we move into the second decade of the 21st century -- mass is out -- and there is no doubt.
What’s “in"? Customization, fragmentation, segmentation, niches and global aggregation. So is high complexity and too many choices. Why? Because, they are possible -- thanks to technology -- and the desperate quest for growth in slow growing markets. Consider the hundreds of television channels. Channels can focus on special niche interests. No longer do the “major networks” have to power, reach and influence of the mass media era. Radio stations also serve niche markets now. Satellite radio expands the choices still further. Pandora moves it to cell phones. Choice grows and niches narrow. Mass is out!
Newspapers may be failing, but blogs are multiplying. Magazines are struggling, but web-zines are everywhere. The economic models have changed too. With so much news available free, what is worth paying for? The content must be “very proprietary.” Quality control of exploding media content is uneven -- or absent entirely -- so be careful what you believe and what you see and/or read.
The custom ordered cars of the 1960’s are long gone. Other products -- like computers -- can still be ordered in exact configurations. However, computers, like cars, now come with all the popular features -- for a return to mass appeal. Clearly “massification” refuses to die quietly. It keeps fighting for its existence, despite being conquered by customization.
Small niches from around the world can be aggregated into markets via the Internet. Individual demand might be small, but combined, it is large enough. Designs can be moved freely and manipulated graphically at light speed, enabling even more kinds of “customization.”
Manufacturing mass-customization and quick-changeovers enable economical run sizes to become smaller and smaller. Print-on-demand books, still more costly per copy than a large print run, have enabled tens of thousands of authors to publish their works, adding still more choices.
However, there is still a point where too many choices are confusing and add costly complexity. To manage complexity effectively means to either get rid of it, or develop systems and processes that handle it economically. Thus “massification” in a different form continues to re-emerge in forms like Amazon.com, the Internet version of the general merchandise “department store” -- but without the fixed locations or bricks and mortar.
One thing is certain: the old era of limited variety and mass-everything is gone forever. Wide variety and customized, complex choices are here to stay. The key to success in this new era is in learning to aggregate and focus choices wisely and to manage the complexity economically, because the mass era may be gone, but the era of choice and complexity is here to stay -- for a while at least.