Media’s Inconvenient Truth

Bob Garfield has been milking the same idea for a decade.

At a recent conference, I saw Bob Garfield deliver the 30-minute version of his Chaos speech for the umpteenth time, and it seemed like the sentiment in the room was that Bob has been playing Chicken Little for too long. Indeed, during the Q&A period following his talk, he was challenged on his assertion that the era of mass media is over.

Many of the marketers in the room were people who relied on television to deliver reach and scale to their media campaigns. The contrast Bob highlighted between being able to reach 80 million people advertising on “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the mid-1960s and the much smaller audience delivered by The Big Bang Theory today was lost on many of the attendees.

The sad thing is that Bob takes this flak despite being 100 percent right.

The truth is that we’ve seen mass media audiences degrade during the course of my lifetime. It used to be that television delivered shared moments beyond the Super Bowl. The day after an episode of “The A-Team” or “Knight Rider” aired, every boy in my elementary school classroom would be talking about it. I can’t help but think how weird it would be for my young daughter’s friends to engage in the same rituals with the shows they’re all watching today. Odds are that most of them aren’t watching the same thing at the same time. Shared TV moments have been splintered and time-shifted out of existence.

At the end of 2013, Nielsen noted that almost two-thirds of television viewership was attached to programs that garnered less than a 0.5 rating. The continued proliferation of channels – not just TV channels, but entirely new media – drives additional fragmentation.

What I think many marketers at the conference were failing to conceptualize is the chilling effect this fragmentation can have on reach. Stringing a bunch of lower-rated spots together increases duplication and makes your campaign deliver a higher average frequency than it otherwise might, while delivering less reach. To combat this, here are a few things you can do:

1) Get a handle on duplication. During television’s Golden Age, a single commercial spot might deliver tens of millions of people in one shot. With this being an increasing rarity, we need to build audience using many more media. The problem is that if you’re striving for incremental reach, it’s difficult to get it without wasteful duplication that comes from the same people seeing your spot over and over. Get a handle on duplication by employing tactics to help ensure you’re reaching new people. Roadblocking – or running ads at the same time on different shows – can help. (Think about it, if you’re watching The Big Bang Theory, you’re probably not also watching Grey’s Anatomy on ABC at the same time.) But merely avoiding duplication within specific media isn’t enough. Getting a handle on cross-channel metrics for digital is important, too.

2) Invest your time in scale opportunities. I’ve said it in past interviews that my goal for time investments in media innovation involves an 80/20 rule. I want to be spending 80 percent of my time looking at opportunities that help scale opportunities for my advertising clients, and just 20 percent on opportunities that help them narrow their targets. After all, the scale problem is the number one issue facing the media business today, and all other in-the-weeds discussions of targeting, programmatic buying and other tactics are a waste of time if we can’t solve for scale.

3) Stop treating spill as waste. Advertising on TV against demographic targets used to be like aiming a bazooka. Sure, we would achieve a certain number of GRPs against our most important demographic targets for a given brand, but we also reached many more people who fell outside our target demos. These days, the Culture of Efficiency looks on that spill into adjoining demographic audiences as waste, and it criticizes our ability to deliver audiences efficiently. In reality, advertised brands have benefitted greatly from that spill. When your TV buy guaranteed against Adults 18-34 delivers a bunch of new customers in their late 30s along with the other new in-demo customers, are you going to say the buy was wasteful? No, of course not. So we need to stop treating spill as waste and see it for what it is – evidence that our ideal customers can exist outside the demographic audiences we’ve grouped them into. Rethink paying premiums for the tightest targeting that technology can deliver, and consider loosening the reins a bit. It will help your media dollars go further and it may provide some unanticipated benefits.

The era of mass media may be over, but we still have some weapons at our disposal for extending the reach and awareness our ad campaigns can deliver.

Tom Hespos is the Founder and Chief Media Officer of Underscore Marketing, an integrated media agency focusing on health and healthy brands.