Zoe Tabary | June 8th 2012 | @EG_MgtThinking
In 2007 the American research group MRI defined the elite market as those who subscribed to, or attended, at least two of the following: the New Yorker, The Economist, Atlantic Monthly, HBO, art galleries, theatre or classical concerts. It found that a third of this group also read People magazine, watched American Idol and subscribed to ESPN. Andrew Rashbass, CEO of The Economist Group, describes this phenomenon as the rise of the “mass intelligent”, that is, the intellectually curious as opposed to the elite market. Apart from making me feel better about watching both the Big Bang Theory and Embarrassing Bodies, Mr Rashbass’ observation got me wondering about the reasons behind this new type of media consumer.
Philippe de Montbello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, once said “the public is a lot smarter than we give them credit for”. The rise of educational standards has created an appetite for high-quality content. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's theory linking culture to class and income may grow out of date, but people with university degrees want more intellectually demanding things to see and hear. Socrates’ method of teaching—getting his students to think better by repeatedly asking them questions emphasising problems in their logic—is back in style.
Popular tastes have changed, in a way that benefits high culture. Smart is the new cool. But the rise of a mass intelligent audience is not all down to tastes and educational standards. Content providers have also become much better at attracting people, and go out of their way to be user-friendly. Take the BBC Proms, the world’s largest festival of classical music. More than two-thirds of last year’s events were sold out, and not just to classical music aficionados: 36,000 of the 300,000 tickets were bought by first-time buyers, and more than 5,000 under-16s attended throughout the season. This was largely enabled by affordable prices (tickets start at £5) and an efficient ticketing system—people wishing to purchase standing tickets are given a number, mark their place in the queue, then go for a pint before the doors open.
The challenge for content providers will be to find the right platforms to share different types of content. According to a study by Pew Research, in association with the Economist Group, 42% of tablet news readers regularly read in-depth news articles, suggesting that people may have a bigger appetite for reading longer, more complex content on a tablet rather than say, a social network. To survive in a schizophrenic world, companies will have to appeal to both impulses in a consumer—nerdy and shallow.