Is the Niche a Myth?

Last week two colleagues of mine, Cory Treffiletti and Tom Hespos wrote about the concept of reach and frequency as metrics for advertising and its application against the online media.

Mr. Treffiletti argued that reach and frequency are methods of predicting communication delivery that should no longer have any bearing on determining the prospective impact of one's advertising efforts - he did give some preference to frequency because "it can be used as a means of gauging the weight of your messages on the target" - because it doesn't correlate with accountability (he capitalizes the 'a' to set off accountability as though it were a kind of Platonic Form of an advertising object; or maybe it is just the application of the German lexigraphic tradition of capitalizing nouns).

Reach and frequency are altmodische and essentially fuzzy metrics for gauging the breadth and depth of an advertising campaign and will find themselves falling away like an old scab in the year 2004.



Mr. Hespos spoke more about how reach works, the importance of effective reach, and how the addition of different media and disparate vehicles can improve incremental reach. As he was not making a judgment call about the "rightness" or "wrongness" of reach and frequency, I can only assume he sees nothing wrong with it.

Either way, the verity of the statement Mr. Treffiletti makes, that "advertising only serves to drive sales and/or market share" cannot be challenged, and accountability is a sign of any particular media's strength in accomplishing those goals.

But in the discussion about reach, frequency, and accountability, it is the unsaid but implied that is the most interesting. What is implied by talk of accountability and the dismissal of reach and frequency as means by which to determine the potential value of a medium's communication delivery against an intended target is that 'mass' is not really that important. The fact that the media montage has been parsed to address the whimsical tastes of even the most aberrant of interests means that advertisers can address their prospects with ever-increasing specificity. What we have is what I once heard Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, call an "embarrassment of niches."

The stuttering ascendancy of online media has brought to the fore overt recognition of what cable, print, and in some ways, radio, had started 20 years ago: the niche audience.

There was a time when targeting, say, young moms with young kids, could only be accomplished to a small degree in print, with old titles (that are still published) like Parents or Expecting. Now, I can go to a dozen different publications and several dozen websites and find not only young moms with young kids, but moms with a certain age of child. If I wanted to, I could use the web to reach club-footed home-office radiologists with kids.

Back in the mid-nineties, Peppers and Rogers popularized the idea of "one-to-one" marketing in their seminal book The One to One Future. This was where the concept of niche marketing was really given its legs to run, and the Internet gave the idea a track to run on. And run it did.

Much of the early positioning of the Internet as an advertising vehicle was first its accountability; but alongside that was its ability to target ever narrower slices of population segments. The problem came from universalizing the concept, applying it to any and all advertising desires or dilemmas. The miracle of niche targeting would deliver to advertisers ONLY those persons who were truly right for the product or service being promoted. This means that niche marketing is the sure-fire way to rid advertising budgets of their inherent waste, because ad messages can be delivered only to the most well-defined prospect.

One problem with this, of course, is that not every product or service has a refined and limited appeal. Bentleys are a relatively niche product, a car for only discerning, well-moneyed tastes. Soft drinks, on the other hand, are enjoyed by old, young, male, female, black, white, rich, and poor alike.

Another problem is that by limiting an advertiser's exposure to only the most rarified individuals, you run the risk of not introducing the product or service to new audiences. Certainly planned market growth in subsequent promotion cycles can address this, but there is something more compelling about the organic (and sometimes wildly uncontrollable) growth in desire for a product or service within a segment of the marketplace that lies outside of the targeted bull's-eye.

And finally, there is the matter of volume. If I am selling Bentleys, I don't need to sell a lot of them to make a business. But if I'm selling canned beverages or software or perhaps even automobiles of a more common variety than the Bentley, I need to move a lot more than just a few. It is no accident that auto manufacturers spend a great deal of money advertising on high-reach sites.

The problem some niche marketing suffers from is that it is too effective at eliminating waste, reducing the pool of well-defined products to a size that is too small from which to make a business. I may yield customers efficiently, but that volume could be too small to have a real impact on the business.

It is in the face of these drawbacks to fully accountable niche marketing that reach can reclaim its value. Regardless of how much testing, retesting, and subsequent study is done, the success borne of the right combination of time, place, and message finding intersect with human behavior is nearly impossible to predict with regular certainty when observed at the micro level. The impact the interplay of these factors can have is much easier to predict with accuracy when looked at from a macro level, however. From the macro perspective, reach provides a probability of persons touched by a message from which advertisers can then predict action and, ultimately, the movement of product.

When the micro is beyond view, or is impractical to address, advertisers can look to the macro and tame the inherent uncertainty of the individual with the repeatedly observed dependability of the masses. Reach and frequency help to manage the masses by fixing the variables of how loudly the masses need to be addressed and how often in order to have an impact.

None of this is to say that narrow-cast marketing or accountability have no place. Quite the contrary; accountability always has a place, and specific audiences need to be communicated with for certain products and services. But the next time you have a niche to scratch, ask yourself; just how much business can be pulled from this niche? If the answer is, "not very much," then reach may be what you really seek.

Next story loading loading..