Advertising's Brave New Niches

Corporate America will always have the budget to grab the prime ad spots. For small advertisers, that means buying smarter

By Pat Wallwork

Small-business advertisers beware: The perfect storm is coming. Buoyed by the recent economic surge, advertising spending is rising, with many media organizations attributing their newfound profits to booming ad sales. The combination of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, the close Presidential race, and the new 52-week television season means advertisers will soon be competing for a finite amount of available media ad time. How will this affect entrepreneurs' strategies and spending?

To adapt to the new climate, advertisers and media buyers at small businesses need to examine each situation, and become extremely creative and resourceful with their media placement.

Large advertisers purchased a lot of commercial time well before and during the Olympic broadcasts. Meanwhile, promo spots for the networks' new-season programs also will decrease available inventory while hiking prices for the commercial airtime that is left. Sensing the change, several major advertisers have made their moves early, booking advance spots for Fox's and NBC's new 52-week seasons, even before the latest shows have had a chance to build their audiences.


  This trend has left many smaller advertisers waiting and watching to pick up the "scatter market." Like scavengers, they are looking to take advantage of the opportunities left by the big, early buyers. While scatter prices are higher and the spots generally less efficient, a counter-programming strategy -- for example, buying ad time on SoapNet's Days of Our Lives Marathon, which was aimed at viewers with no interest in watching Olympic athletics -- can still reach an audience.

Where else can small advertisers turn to maximize returns on their ad budgets?

The one-word answer: technology, which is allowing ads to be customized for specific and often, quite narrow, target markets. For example, the Weather Channel plans to offer media buyers the option of tailoring their ads to each forecast. This means that an auto dealership, say, could match and mate commercials for rugged trucks with a forecast for rain or snow, and ads for convertibles when the sun is predicted to shine. Cable is creating more and more of these niche opportunities, and since the ratings of some cable programs are beginning to rival those of the networks, the potential for smaller businesses to exploit these advances can only increase.

A number of smaller businesses are also pushing the limits of advertising's new frontier, with marketers of wireless products just starting to use databases of user-profiles to deliver personalized ads via cell phones. With 1.3 billion wireless phones in the world, this untapped media channel allows tailored, one-to-one marketing. Some such ads even make reference to the time of day and real-time location of the potential customer.


  It requires little imagination to spot the potential. For example, if you own a fashionable clothing store, it would be possible to specifically alert a passing customer by cell phone that the latest consignment of Manolo Blahniks had just arrived in the shoe section. Yet that approach is not without peril. Unless advertisers tread with care, such tactics might easily incite angry protests about invasions of privacy.

Without taking innovative approaches, however, small advertisers face an increasingly uphill battle. Fact is, in the local and national markets, traditional TV commercials simply don't reach as many people as they once did. About 40 years ago, an ad that ran on the three major networks would typically be viewed by 80% of American women. Today, with media fragmentation the prevailing trend, that commercial would need to run on 100 television channels to achieve the same result. Small businesses that don't prepare for the coming sea change are sure to get swamped.

Wallwork is the media director and partner at advertising agency McKee Wallwork Henderson in New Mexico.

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