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Narrowcasting: the new, old way to hit your target audience

I have mentioned previously in this column the fact that today’s mass communications landscape is undergoing an unprecedented amount of fragmentation.

Radio listenership has been drastically cut with the proliferation of satellite radio, iPod and other commercial-free alternatives. Television — long the gold standard in reaching the biggest audience — is being hit by fragmentation at ever increasing rates.

What began in the 1980s as the cable TV revolution escalated in the next decade, and continues to the present day. Most cable systems offer viewers 200+ channels of specialty programming, with the option of commercial-free movie channels like HBO and Cinemax. Cable news networks, such as the Fox News Channel and CNN, have reduced network news ratings to an all time low.

With the onset of TiVo, now viewers have the option to omit advertising from their favorite programming altogether. While printed books have experienced a renaissance of sorts recently, the same cannot be said for magazines and newspapers.

More Americans report that they now get their news from online sources instead of newspapers. The last several years have witnessed the demise of many high-profile magazine ventures, such as George and Talk. Even TV Guide, once the highest circulated magazine in America with subscribers over 20 million, recently announced a change in format in an effort to remain a viable entity.

More expensive, less efficient

Media fragmentation has made it more expensive and less efficient for makers of general consumption goods, such as Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and even the automakers to some degree, to reach their vast consumer audiences. However, the current environment should be viewed as a dream come true for smaller brands which already appeal to a segmented audience. Take for instance The Home Depot.

The company conducts a good deal of “traditional” advertising over network TV, but more effective are the endless packages of sponsorships, branded content, and commercials the company runs with the TLC network. Much of TLC’s programming is dedicated to home improvement and decorating, the natural target audience for TLC. And not only is it a natural audience, but the messages are hitting the audience while they are in a “home improvement” state of mind. This is a key concept — not only hitting a key demographic, but hitting them at the optimum time.

That’s a macro-example.

An even more specialized brand, say a company that is only targeting the affluent, can take even further use of media fragmentation. Marketers have long used zip-code targeted direct mail to reach specialized demographics.

Over the years, consumers have become much more dismissive of standard direct mail pieces, making the medium less effective. However, some cable companies, Comcast among them, have carried this concept into television. Some Comcast systems now offer the ability to target specific zip codes with TV commercials. Indications are that this trend will continue.

Zeroing in…

The concept of using multimedia in a very limited, but highly efficient, marketing effort is called “narrowcasting” (as opposed to “broadcasting”). This differs from traditional direct marketing in the fact that it does make use of the mass media to hit small populations of consumers.

Direct marketing utilizes non-electronic, one-to-one messaging techniques, such as direct mail, direct sales, seminars, door-to-door, etc. Narrowcasting utilizes electronic media to deliver specialized content and messaging to small groups of people.

The notion of narrowcasting is not new. Direct marketing basically attempted to accomplish the same thing via the channels available before the “digital revolution.” Many companies built the bulk of their sales through direct mail campaigns. The problem with direct marketing was, it just didn’t lend itself to good branding. Sales, sometimes, but not branding. A big part of brand building is experiencing a brand in context, or at least in a certain frame of mind. This can’t be controlled with direct mail, but can be controlled much more so by narrowcasting.

The electronic media has allowed narrowcasting to become what direct marketing never quite could.

Putting it to use

In all of this marketing philosophy, the real question is how can you use this concept to build your brand and increase your business?

First thing, realize that while narrowcasting involves a message delivery system, it is also a part of your brand, and you should take care to not select a medium based simply on raw demographics.

For example, many skateboarders watch MTV. However, a skateboard manufacturer trying to brand itself as “under the radar” and “counter-culture” would be ill advised to undertake a TV campaign on MTV. Such a campaign instantly makes the brand too “establishment,” even though the messaging would be hitting a prime target audience. The skateboard brand would be better served to conduct a message-smuggling campaign via the many skateboard blogs on the Web.

After you select a targeted media with appropriate content, it is important to consider timing and situational aspects. This is most applicable concerning specialty program on cable TV. The Fine Living network runs a program that explores various alcoholic beverages of the world called “Thirsty Traveler.” Seems like the perfect venue for a microbrewer to advertise. However, if that show ran at 10 a.m. on Mondays, I would argue this point.

For most people (hopefully), beer is far from top-of-mind at this time of day. While the show likely attracts coinsurers of libations, the emotional impact of beer advertising on the audience simply isn’t going to be as strong at this time of day compared to the early evening. It is this emotional impact that makes a brand more memorable, and ultimately effects purchase decisions. There’s a reason auto dealers step up marketing efforts around the time income tax refunds come due.

Another important aspect is to understand that the electronic media means more than television, radio and e-mail. Weblogs are becoming ever more influential in our society. While specialized blogs may only reach a few dozen people, these are people you know who are interested in products or services within your particular niche. And for every one person blogging on a specific subject, they have five friends interested in the same subject who aren’t blogging. Promoting your product or service on one blog can have a far, far reaching effect.

In addition to blogs, technology is progressing that allows for opt-in messaging via cell phones. These opt-in services allow users to receive advertising message for particular products and services of which they are interested.

For Americans 18-34, cell phones are more common than homephones. Using these must-have communication devices as messaging conduits will become more and more common in the coming years.

Finally, don’t think you can “cheap out” of marketing by narrowcasting. These outlets are beginning to realize they’re delivering a very valuable service — a highly qualified target audience, during a highly susceptible period. Narrowcasting isn’t a cheap alternative to broadcast marketing, but it is a way niche services and businesses can conduct effective branding while cutting out much of the waste.

Tim Mask is vice president of brand planning and development at Maris, West & Baker advertising in Jackson. He can be reached at tmask@mwb.com.

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One comment

  1. It is well researched and written. Thanks for sharing the information with us.

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