In 1990, cable TV was growing and media agency executives were incorporating cable channels such as CNN, A&E, ESPN, MTV and Discovery into their national television buys. Buyers moved dollars into cable to keep CPMs low and to follow the audience that was embracing the new content. Less than 10 percent of a television budget would go to cable at the time.
Fast-forward 20 years later and ad spending on cable TV networks has grown to more than $21.1 billion -- and cable accounts for almost 60 percent of all television viewing. The not-so-long tail of television grew significantly over the past two decades as new cable channels launched with everything from sitcom reruns, movies, cooking shows, reality TV franchises and more variations on news reporting.
Today, advertisers have hundreds of cable channels to place their messages. “Niche” networks like AMC can have the biggest telecast for any drama series in basic cable history among total viewers with the “Walking Dead,” while Fox News Channel can set new viewership records with a presidential debate. Television’s long tail of content has been embraced by media buyers because it was embraced by consumers who saw value in the growing and diversified choices of programming.
TV buyers had to make extensive changes to their media management systems to accept the thousands of 30-second commercial units that were necessary to advertise across cable networks. They had to reconfigure audience measurements to acknowledge the niche -- yet valuable -- cable viewers. They had to expand their stewardship and bill/pay processes to handle the magnitude of invoices created by advertising across many more networks and programs.
The industry made these changes because it was necessary to capture the value of the growing mid-tail of television. After top-tier large audience cable networks such as TBS and USA, there are a growing number of channels in the middle that represent loyal audiences due to appealing niche content. Networks such as Bravo, AMC, Food Network and TLC all fit within the mid-tail of cable television. It’s actually pretty simple: Consumers follow the best media content choices. Advertisers follow consumers. Agencies deliver for their clients.
Today we are looking at the same scenario being played out in the digital media marketplace but on a much greater scale. After a buyer negotiates with the top five to six sites such as Google, Yahoo, AOL, MSN and Facebook, there are thousands of mid-tail sites to consider for a brand.
Automating buying platforms can cover some of that ground, but not all of it. Ad networks lack the customization that is necessary to truly fit a brand brief in today’s intense audience data marketplace, where there are thousands of mid-tail sites to consider for a brand.
Buyers are looking for ways to aggregate up mid-tail sites that are appropriate for their brands and can enhance the brand message. They need customized solutions for site selection, speed to market and a smooth back-end process that won’t collapse under the weight of millions of placements and sites.
Effectively harnessing the digital landscape’s mid-tail delivers significant value for agency buyers and their clients because it:
1. Keeps pricing under control with the top sites: By moving budgets to mid-tail sites, buyers are keeping the large players in check. Just as cable channels helped to keep pricing under control with the Big Four networks, mid-tail sites will help temper growing CPMs on the largest internet sites.
2. Follows your consumers: People naturally gravitate toward content about their favorite topics and entertainment. There is only so much the top sites can do to hold on to their audiences forever. Eventually that audience declines as people find other sites that better display their passions and points of interest.
3. Finds more opportunity for your brand: By strategically aggregating more mid-tail opportunities, advertisers will find unique opportunities to work with publishers for the first time. Just as cable channels broke the barriers to on-air sponsorships, mid-tail sites will be able to deliver innovative value-added programs for brands.
We are on the edge of an industry renaissance where all media is digital and consumers don’t distinguish between what was television, radio, print or what happened first live on YouTube.
Instead it will be video, audio and text with an endless selection of publisher choices. Being able to harness the value of that mid-tail section will be one of the keys to successfully marketing in the next 20 years. The industry did this once before with cable TV, and now we need to be ready to do it again except on a much, much greater scale of complexity. That greater scale of complexity may seem daunting, but it comes with much greater opportunity.