Are online categories helpful for public relations?

 links to A Typology of Information and Communication Technology Users (PDF)  offering 10 categories and confirming evidence of one-in-three people online as content creators.  Here 31% are termed “elite tech users” – 8% being Omnivores, 7% Connectors, 8% Lackluster Veterans and 8% Productivity Enhancers.

[This seems to match last month’s Forrester’s Participation Ladder (6 categories of online engagement) which indicated 13% of users are creators and 19% critics.]

In public relations it is important to understand the behaviour of those with whom we are communicating – and segmentation is one of those approaches we use to group people around knowledge, interests, attitudes, or behaviour.  But is it helpful?

This latest research shows one in five Americans view information technology in terms of what it can do for them – with 10% being mobile centric (ie prefer their mobile phone to computer technology) and 10% “connected but hassled” (which speaks for itself).  That could be helpful in terms of recognising for many people online communications need to be simpler and deliver a benefit.

Similarly, knowing that nearly half (49%) of Americans are enamoured with technology reminds us of the importance of traditional means of communications.  (The study shows 8% experiment but don’t have the skills to make more use of technology, 15% are satisfied, light users, 11% have either mobiles or computer access but is isn’t critical to their lives, and 15% are good old fashioned “luddites” – happy with traditional media.)

Although such research is interesting, beyond a basic reflection, is it that informative?  Every other week there are new studies and imaginatively named boxes for different groups of people.  In itself that is ironic, given one of new media’s mantras is about communicating with individuals not masses. 

How do these new models relate to Rogers‘ classic 1962 theory: ?  This proposes innovations spread through society following an S-shaped curve – with a slow adoption initially by innovators (2.5%) and early adopters (13.5%) followed by an early majority (34%) and late majority (34%) until we reach a plateau where the new idea has become mainstream.  Laggards (16%) who are late-comers (if ever) to the innovation balance the bell curve.  Is there a reason why these classic categories cannot be used rather than creating new ones?

If this model has merit, we can see that use of social media has reached the early majority stage.  That means it has moved from the risk takers and social leaders into those who are making a deliberate decision drawing on the experiences and support of their social network.  Online, therefore, is worth the investment of PR time and effort as a key communications tool – isn’t it?

In 1991, Geoffrey Moore developed the to propose a time gap – a chasm – before the pragmatic early majority take up the innovation.  In the case of social media, any chasm seems to have been successfully crossed.  So, yes, it would appear, it is safe to integrate online into our communications strategies.

But for those in public relations or marketing, isn’t it more important to understand the behaviour of the actual publics with whom we need to engage rather than seeking certain categories based on snapshot research results? 

I also wonder where those in public relations might fit – have we reached early majority using online techniques yet?

It may be hard to get our head around the concept of communicating with individuals rather than categories – but if the opportunity of new/social media is to do just that, is it really helpful to keep regressing to lumping people, even in smaller masses?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “Are online categories helpful for public relations?”

  1. Is there a reason why these classic categories cannot be used rather than creating new ones?

    You know the answer to this one. If they hadn’t created something seemingly ‘new’ we wouldn’t be talking about it. You just weren’t supposed to spot that it wasn’t actually very, well, new.

  2. I know. But there are so many good original theories already that people don’t champion or research – rather they just want to create their own. And, too much of this is the result of self-completed studies (eg attitudinal research) rather than robust experimentation, observation or ethnography.

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