A Message to Media Buyers: Think Ink, Too

As mass-audience print and broadcast platforms collapse, advertisers find they can leverage their digital presence with hyper-local niche publications.

By Dennis Boone

The complex challenges facing today’s advertisers and ad buyers were front and center at a recent forum for Kansas City and bi-state regional ad buyers and advertisers, where nationally known media experts offered key insights into an ever-more-fractured world of marketing channels.

Gordon Borrell, of Borrell Associates in Williamsburg, Va., and Mitch Bettis, CEO of Arkansas Business Publishing Group addressed advertrising buyers and marketers gathered at PlexPod in the Nov. 7 luncheon and program produced by Ingram’s Media. Afterward, attendees gathered for a round-table to address issues and trends.

The event began with Bettis diving into various metrics that might have surprised anyone who believes print platforms are losing relevance for effective marketing. He especially addressed the value of hyper-niche platforms. “When you think about what has changed over the last 20 years, I’m not sure a profession has changed as much as media buying,” said Bettis. “It used to be really simple … we had a newspaper or two, a radio station or two, a billboard or two, and we had a couple of options.”

Modern buyers, he said, are confronted with incredible fragmentation of messaging platforms. “We went from 15 stations to 200,” he says. “Audiences went from mass audiences to concentrated areas … where options have multiplied exponentially.”

The result? Marketing has evolved from brand awareness and affinity or sales positioning to a setting where success metrics involve online views, likes, shares, or share-of-voice. His own company has moved from a print focus to embracing digital marketing functions. The experience has shown that digital platforms can leverage and enhance the reach of print and other traditional methods.

“There is still an audience there,” Bettis said. “The task, then, is finding the right niches, the right hyper-local content to surround your brand and find the right affinity, the right activation, and the right results.” It’s not that print is dead, he said; “what I think people are longing for from a content standpoint is, ‘I don’t have time to deal with all the other crap.’ When media split into a million pieces, it just got hard.”

But within that disruption, opportunities arose for savvy marketers trying to reach the right eyeballs. Example: Arkansas is the nation’s largest producer of rice. Rice in the field attracts ducks. A lot of high-level executives are avid duck hunters. Boom: Instant niche audience for marketers paying attention.

In response, Bettis’ group launched Greenhead: The Arkansas Duck Hunting Magazine. That immediately created a platform for makers of duck boats, duck blinds, hunting clothing, guns and ammo, and much more, appealing to advertisers trying to reach an elite—and affluent—audience.

Another publication in his stable is Meeting Planner, and almost by definition, it’s about as hyper-local in focus as a magazine can be. “It’s produced once a year for people in Arkansas, whose single job is to produce corporate events. That’s it,” Bettis said. The publication is full of relevant data, updates on trends in audio-visual tech, guidance on effective story-telling, food and beverage hints—anything that can help planners produce effective and engaging corporate gatherings and other large meetings. That created not only a print publication but a digital platform as well.

“When newspapers fell apart, and television audiences fractured, and radio audiences fractured, these niche audiences thrived,” he said.

Borrell followed that up with a data-driven presentation that validated local print’s role in leveraging ad messaging and brand building. He dissected his firm’s research into the $370 billion that local businesses spend—and too often misspend—every year in advertising and marketing functions.

Those findings reflect a democratization of the media in the Internet age, as individual companies are able to create their own media platforms. That ongoing trend gathered momentum during the pandemic era, he said, with a near doubling in the numbers of small businesses created during the economic upheaval of the 2020 and 2021 era.

For media companies, the down-side is that smaller companies, especially in their early stages, are less likely to invest in advertising and marketing. And existing businesses, he says, are often led by executives who are functionally marketing novices. 

“Economic woes have curtailed marketing investments,” he said. As a result, companies with strong marketing expertise will hold a strategic competitive advantage.

An example of that is Walmart, where executives know a few things about effective marketing. The digital presence of the world’s largest retailer has created a platform that draws a bigger monthly audience than CNN.com or The New York Times website. 

That has had profound implications in the ad/marketing world; since 2002, advertising jobs have declined relative to marketing jobs, essentially flipping the ratios of people working in those disciplines. 

For smaller businesses trying to reach the right audience, he said, what was once a primary motivation—the type of media being purchased—has yielded to new factors that drive buying decisions. Those include the high level of marketing expertise on the media platform, a partnership mentality that eschews vendor-buyer models, transparent marketing plans, and a focus on the buyer’s business, not that of the medium involved.

Now, with prospects for a rec-ession looming, companies are showing signs of pulling back on their ad spending, he said. And that is a big mistake. Even as consumer confidence plunged during the Great Recession and the pandemic onset—factors that convinced many advertisers to scale back—consumer spending overall con-tinued to increase. Failure to reach them, then, ended up costing those advertisers market share.

Those mistakes are compounded, he said, when businesses without the right skills attempt to manage their own marketing in the belief that they are saving money. But a more competitive local business environment, driven by increasing numbers of new players, is setting the stage for significant disruption in 2023: Novice marketers making critical mistakes in that environment will lose market share to more-skilled marketers.

The takeaway. The prospect of a recession is not a signal to retrench your ad spending—it’s the call to action for bigger ad spending, with a sharper focus on reaching the right audience.

Gordon Borrell followed his presentations by taking a seat for an enlightening roundtable where engaged participants addressed challenges, opportunities and effective marketing and advertising practices they see in varied fields like banking, home-building, and health-care delivery as advertisers and marketers and as media buyers and planners representing advertising and marketing agencies in the group.