Does Size Matter: Who needs big numbers in a world of niche media? Jim Curtis investigates

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.

Increasingly, audience size alone is not the thing that turns

advertisers on. In this fragmented, interactive, multi-channel age,

brand owners are just as keen to advertise to tiny but highly profitable

audiences as they are to carpet bomb the population with spots in Who

Wants to be a Millionaire? Audience quality, as well as quantity, is the

name of the game.

The upshot of this is advertisers that previously concentrated on mass

audiences are devoting more resources to ’narrowcast’ media,

particularly the internet and digital TV. Procter & Gamble and Unilever

- two of the heaviest TV advertisers in the world - are just two

companies diverting more of their spend from mass to niche


P&G has said that if interactive digital media delivers everything it

promises, then it could be spending 80 per cent of its pounds 2 billion

global marketing budget on new-media within three years. In the UK, P&G

recently signed a deal with Excite to create a branded website for

teenagers. The company currently spends around pounds 2 million a year

on the net. Unilever is also gradually reducing its reliance on TV and

last year it doubled the number of brands it marketed on the web.

Niall Fitzgerald, Unilever’s chairman, made his enthusiasm for new media

clear as long ago as 1997, when he told a conference: ’There are

irreversible changes taking place in the world of communications - and

not one of those changes will favour network television ... mass

communication has its best days behind it.’

With giants like these throwing their weight behind narrowcast

communication, it’s easy to fall into the trap of predicting an

advertising armageddon.

But the reality is that brands still need building and the most

effective way of doing it is to pull in the numbers.

Once that’s done, however, brands want to tailor their messages to

different groups. For that, you need niche. So, the future is not a

question of whether to go big or small, it’s about knowing how to

combine the two effectively.

While brand owners like P&G continue to plug away on terrestrial peak

time, they are increasingly exploring smaller alternatives. Jamie West,

head of sales at the Sci-Fi Channel, says mass-market brands are using

the channel, aiming cutting-edge products at young early adopters. ’We

deliver a more responsive audience. The numbers are smaller, but the

quality is more certain,’ says West.

That’s the beauty of niche media - advertisers have a stronger chance of

influencing the consumer’s behaviour. By choosing a niche environment,

the consumer has already announced their interests, making them easier

to sell to. As David Sanderson, sales director at Carlton Digital Sales,

says: ’It’s about shaving away those last layers of resistance.’

Because the chances of scoring direct hits on a target audience are much

better in specialist media, the return on the advertiser’s investment

can be much higher. Toni McHugh, vice president and European director

for global advertising sales at CNBC, says: ’More and more brands are

unwilling to pay for the wastage of mass advertising. They don’t want to

throw money away reaching people who have no interest in or can’t afford

their product.’

If this argument worked for all advertisers, then revenue at

mass-audience pullers like ITV, The Sunday Times and Cosmopolitan would

fall through the floor. The fact it has not proves the mass channel is

still in demand.

But why?

Research shows that blitzing audiences with peak-time advertising can

dramatically increase purchasing. According to TVSpan - a study by

Taylor Nelson Sofres into the TV advertising of 113 brands - regularly

repeating an ad over a few days is the best way to make people buy. On

ITV peak time, advertisers can achieve a 28 per cent increase in sales

if the gap between exposure to an ad is no more than three days. This

compares with 15 per cent for all peak time and 6 per cent for all

commercial TV.

A similar principle applies in magazines. Tim Lucas, director of

corporate business development at the National Magazine Company, says:

’It depends on what you want to achieve, but it’s often better to talk

to one magazine’s readers more often than it is to try to spread your

message across titles.’

The other big advantage of using mass media is that the industry is best

equipped to measure its effectiveness, with tools like BARB. Trying to

get reliable figures on very small audiences can be a headache that

media agencies prefer to avoid. A new set of measurements designed for

niche digital channels is in the offing, but until then the industry has

to get by as best it can.

Tony Hopewell-Smith, director of Carlton Research, says: ’When you’re

dealing in samples of 10 or 15 per cent of the population, that’s fine.

But when you get down to channels with 0.02 per cent or less, it becomes

a nightmare. It’s extremely difficult to quantify what some of these

very small channels offer.’

Big is no longer best

The only solution is for agencies and sales people to wean themselves

off their reliance on data and follow their instincts. It requires

imagination and a bit of bravery, but it can be worth the punt. As

Sanderson says: ’Take Carlton Cinema. There’s not a scrap of data on it,

but it’s getting a lot of support from people who can see it’s a strong


As digital TV and the net take off, the debate over whether to go niche

or mass will intensify. The reality is that the two will have to work

hand in hand. Advertisers will increasingly recognise that each performs

a different task and will juggle their budgets accordingly. But one

thing is for sure - the days when big meant better are definitely



Nick Milligan, sales director, Channel 5

’Size is not the issue - it’s a question of what you can do for an

advertiser and at what cost. The market certainly didn’t shun satellite

because it was small and the same goes for us. After all, 95 per cent of

all television advertisers use Channel 5.

’The science of television advertising is the convergence of building

coverage quickly - which you do at a premium cost - and getting an

effective level of frequency to make people remember your brand.

’Advertisers don’t look at size alone - they spend more time focusing on

what you can deliver for them and attribute a worth to your output.’

Fran Cassidy, marketing director, Carlton Media Sales

’Mass audiences make brands and branding is key to the majority of

advertising campaigns. Therefore, mass channels will continue to be the

dominant advertising platform for the foreseeable future.

’The major problem with niche channels is that you still can’t get the

audience figures to give you a statistically rigorous sample. As long as

the advertising business is wedded to currencies like BARB, this will

always be a problem for the niche channel sell.

’Size matters because it delivers sales and peak-time ITV is the most

powerful medium available to deliver increases in sales.’


Alexandra O’Donnell, ad director, Tatler

’Our circulation of 86,000 is small, but we have a tightly targeted,

highly sought-after audience. If we were small but aimed at the same

audience as much larger competitors - which is where Options went wrong

- then it would be a nightmare.

’Our advertisers get much lower wastage than if they place ads in titles

with a broader audience. If you’re looking to sell a pounds 10,000

watch, you go for a magazine where you know the readers can afford it.

Pure numbers are not as important when targeting an upmarket


’If you’re small you have to be highly desirable and deliver an audience

that is not easy to reach through other channels.’

Sara Stephenson, group ad director, Cosmopolitan

’Being big means that there is no limit to what we can do for


We have a powerful brand that, through extensions into areas like new

media and live events, means we can offer advertisers a package that

they just can’t get with a small title.

’Competitors like Elle may have the edge in the niche fashion sector,

but when it comes to targeting young women’s lifestyle, no-one can beat


’Some specialist advertisers may find it more difficult with us than

they would with a narrower title. Otherwise, I don’t think many blue

chips are looking to tightly define their audience - they still want to

use coverage builders.’


Jo Clark, ad manager, The Observer

’With a circulation of around 410,000, we’ve got a tight community of

readers that is easy to define to our advertisers.

’The Sunday Times’ readership may be larger, but it’s quite transient

and without the same loyalty. We can produce a tighter package because

we have a clearer understanding of what our readers like.

’We get a lot of the same advertisers as the competition, but the fact

we can paint an accurate map of our readers means we get more tactical

campaigns. For example, a lot of dotcom advertisers are using us to the

exclusion of others because we have a high proportion of internet early


Matthew Dodd, senior ad planner, The Sunday Times

’Niche media provide advertisers with a defined audience - their readers

are interested in the subject matter of the medium.

’However, people invariably have more than one interest. People are

leading what the Henley Centre terms ’spider lives’, where a person’s

interests are eclectic. Niche titles do not cater for multiple interests

and so become only one of many sources of information in a person’s


’The Sunday Times caters for people with niche interests and spider

lives without compromising on the breadth or depth of the content. The

paper acts as a portal.’

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