Finding that mass niche

Being a small fish in a big pond can be a real challenge, especially when that pond is the TV market. So how do the niche operators persuade advertisers that they can deliver them a return? Katy Elliott investigates

There are estimated to be more than 300 digital TV channels operating in the UK and rumour has it that, by next year, another 80 will join the scores struggling to stay afloat in a perilous sea.

Over the past five years, there have been numerous well-documented flops – Channel Health, Einstein, Granada Breeze, Simply Money, The Money Channel and Wellbeing, to name but a few. But for every relatively highprofile channel closure there are probably ten that sink with scarcely a soul noticing that they ever launched.

And, while there may be many revenue models emerging, most are desperately trying to sell good old-fashioned spot advertising to generate their millions. But how do they get on the media agency books when there is so much competition? Viewers of multichannel have a more positive attitude to advertising. According to TGI research they are 15% more likely to agree that advertising helps them make more informed choices. Multichannel can cost-effectively deliver a niche audience in a way that mass terrestrial channels cannot.

To make the decision about which channels to choose, agencies want figures on reach, loyalty and profile. It’s one of the frustrations of the market, according to James Wildman, executive sales director of IDS, which handles all UKTV and Flextech channels.

“There’s a fairly traditional approach to buying – it’s numbers on a spreadsheet. Space is traded and bought and sold as though the digital phenomenon of 51% now having digital TV hasn’t happened,” he says.

With so many low-rating channels it can become hard to justify one over another, says Carat media director Steve Hobbs: “Whether you choose Sci-Fi or Men & Motors it makes very little difference. It can become a bidding war.”

But differentiating yourself from the multitude by offering the lowest prices is not the cleverest of business models.

“Our product doesn’t fly off the shelves because big is still deemed beautiful. We have to work at it,” says Wildman. “With our commercial development team we take a more strategic sale further upstream to planners and clients directly.

“The teen channel Trouble is overlooked by agencies and doesn’t register with buyers. It delivers an incredibly strong teenage audience, reaching almost a third of teenagers each month. Any advertiser who specifically wants to reach a teenager would be crazy to omit it.

To reach those teenagers through Pop Idol, for example, you’d have to pay for the total ITV1 audience delivered and it would cost double.”

Johnson & Johnson’s skincare range Clean and Clear teamed up with Trouble, running a competition to find Britain’s best mates. It sponsored the peaktime Hang Out strand between 5pm and 7pm for eight months and the quest culminated with a tour to teenage hang outs such as indoor shopping centres.

The whole campaign cost a relatively modest £500,000.

“We will work with agencies in a very cooperative way to deliver genuinely innovative and cut-through communications,” adds Wildman, citing the three-minute guides to designing a perfect room that UK Style created with Ikea. “Because these channels are so well targeted, demographically and environmentally – it allows advertisers to put their creative in the right context.”

Emap, the music channels of which – Kiss, Magic, Kerrang!, Q, The Box and Smash Hits! – are handled by Sky Sales, sells just one of its own channels – The Hits – in-house. It desperately needed a selling point to distinguish itself from the hoards of music channels.

The in-house team decided to cut the clutter and limit the ad breaks to one and a half minutes. It also repackaged the ubiquitous direct response TV slots which are tortuously long and creatively unappealing as “premier daytime” between 6am and 2pm. “We cleared it of ambulance chasers. We selected the clients we wanted to talk to – AOL, Dell and Disney for example – people with good creative. It sells out every month,” says Emap’s head of ad sales Darren Khan.

Then Emap embarked upon an exclusive deal policy, choosing only one operator in each ad category as an exclusive partner for yearround advertising. Since Burger King is an exclusive partner it can carry no ads from McDonald’s or KFC for example. “It was a brave thing to do – at some points we were turning away quite large amounts of money,” says Khan.

Then, of course, there is the relationship building with agencies – endless rounds of lunches, drinkies and freebies. The media planner or buyer is almost certainly more open to such fripperies if they come from a channel that he or she knows, watches and wants to identify with.

“E4 has the advantage of being a channel that’s targeted at the 20-somethings who work in ad agencies. That gives us an advantage over older skewing channels,” says E4’s head of marketing Rufus Radcliffe.

But channels must be careful not to irritate and they must realise that such marketing techniques can be no substitute for hard fact.

It still comes down to the number and profile of viewers. And viewers are undoubtedly much easier to attract if you have a strong mother brand such as E4 or ITV2, which can cross-promote, or have branded family of channels such as UKTV or Sky.

“We’re looking for ‘mass niche’ audiences from multichannel – ie, a lot of very specific viewers,” says Starcom UK group trading director Chris Locke. “Either the channel must be distinctive or it must have hero programmes.

And if you stand still you’re dead, because the next one will just come along and swallow you.”

Case study: Hallmark

It’s the UK’s mostwatched drama channel and the fifth most-watched digital channel overall after Sky One, E4, ITV2, and UK Gold. And after ITV1 and BBC1 it boasts the most loyal audiences in UK television.

Yet, four-year-old Hallmark has to work hard to get on to a media buyer’s schedule.

Some put this down to the fact that it doesn’t have a clear brand identity, with many associating it more readily with schmaltzy soft-focus cards.

Others put it down to the fact that media buyers are just not drawn to schmaltzy soft-focus TV.

Bring on the dancing girls. A troupe of West End and Broadway performers have been accompanying director of sales Mark Taylor on agency rounds.

Described by one media director as a wholly embarrassing experience, he at least admitted that it pushed the channel to the front of minds.

“It shows that we give a damn, and that we made an effort – it’s well-intentioned frivolity,” says marketing director Matt Woods.

And there’s a serious message.

“We provide an exceptionally loyal audience of mature, over-30s, discerning viewers with a female bias,” says Woods. “The fact is that no one provides better daytime TV than us. It’s an environment that can make your product look good.”

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