How to Beat Marketing’s Inverse Proportional Paradox

There’s a problem in marketing that’s keeping my colleague awake at night. He wants to provide his clients with excellent results but finds new and emerging channels of communication present a perplexing problem.

In this article, “The Late-Adoption/Profitability Paradox,” he hypothesizes that emerging services lose their effectiveness over time, while the cost of fulfilling those services increase. He calls this an inverse proportional problem. It arises when marketing professionals must maintain profitability while delivering services with declining results for their client.

To understand how inverse proportionality can work against a marketing team, let’s take media relations as an example. I choose media relations because it has a long and rich history in the marketing mix and if it’s done right, the results can be quite valuable to the client and profitable to the marketer. Done wrong, a client will spend a lot of money to get meager results, while the marketer spends hours pitching without much success.

How we turn inverse proportional service delivery on its ear starts with challenging the notion many marketers hold about an audience and replacing it with a more strategic understanding of niche groups.

Why Audiences Are Different Than Niche Groups

Scan a few marketing blogs and you’ll see most professionals give credence to audiences. This focus may be the catalyst to inversely proportional marketing services. Marketers use the word audience to describe the large groups of people businesses should be connecting with, but this might be the wrong approach.

According to sociologist Herbert Blumer, audiences are made of individuals who passively consume information through mass media but rarely share the same views, beliefs, values or understanding of specific issues. And they almost never seek out solutions to such either.

On the other hand, in his research, “Public Opinion and Public Opinion Polling,” published in a 1948 edition of American Sociological Review, Blumer argues smaller groups share something in common – the same problem impacts all of them and they unite through mediated communication channels to seek out information as well as solutions.

Other research from Linda Putnam and Cynthis Stohl in their 1990 article, “Bona fide groups: A reconceptualization of groups in context,” published in Communication Studies, argued niche groups are interdependent to the shared issue that affects them.

Building on Blumer, Putnam and Stohl’s research, we can understand that identifying niche groups gives marketers a strategic advantage when providing media relations services. Niche groups are interdependent because they share the same values, beliefs, views, understand a specific problem and actively seek out solutions.

Case in point: The Wall Street Journal vs. Cooperative Business Journal

Taking this reasoning to heart, we can reasonably say the mass of people who read the Wall Street Journal or listen to The Nightly News with Brian Williams, are more an audience than a niche, whereas individuals reading Cooperative Business Journal are more focused on issues related to the cooperative business industry.

If a marketer built a media relations service around the Wall Street Journal and neglected niche media, the result of that marketer’s efforts would be inversely proportional. While that marketer may land a story in the Wall Street Journal, the likelihood of people reading a mass media product to act upon the information they receive is less likely, thus a marketer must spend more time pitching media with no reasonable guarantee of converting readers to paying clients.

That is to say, a media relations service focused on mass media could be less likely to produce the tangible results to grow a business, because the people consuming mainstream media do it passively – it’s entertaining – whereas consumers of niche media are actively searching for information, perhaps even solutions to a business problem. So, targeting niche media puts a client’s message in front of people searching for that precise solution.

Why Inverse Propositional Strategies Damage Marketing Outcomes

If a marketing team depends on communicating with an audience, then the value of engagement decreases because an audience does not operate as a single system, rather its individual members passively consume media, but rarely act upon it. This causes two problems:

  • Marketers try to create the broadest message possible, which never really addresses the values of a single, cohesive group of people.
  • When messages fail to touch the core values of people, people remain latent.

Other researchers have confirmed that messages that touch the core values of smaller groups of people resonate better and the outcomes of engagement are quite a bit improved.

Leveraging Inverse Proportionality into Your Media Outreach

There is no silver-bullet approach to any marketing strategy, but there are some basic guidelines you should consider when planning media outreach:

  • Mass media is good to get traffic and build awareness but does little to improve conversion without spending big because the audiences are heterogeneous.
  • Building relationships with niche media, where smaller groups of people share common interests and search for answers to common problems, results in higher engagement and lower costs.
  • Identifying specific problems those groups of people face, and writing service journalism pieces that answer those problems, strengthens a company’s competency in the eye of the people they want to engage.

To bring this concept full circle, let’s return the notion of inverse proportional services from the beginning of this article: one thing increases, while another decreases. It sounds simple enough, but there’s actually a lot happening:

  1. If the marketer is billing by the hour and has to spend more time pitching, then that increases the cost for the client.
  2. If the marketer is spending more time on a client, then that’s less time he/she can spend on other clients.
  3. If the hits or runs a marketer gets in big media do not generate leads to conversion, then ROI for the client decreases.

All you’re left with is ambiguous “awareness.” Unless an organization does some heavy surveying, awareness is very hard to measure, and it often can’t be measured at all.

On the other hand, as we learned from Blumer if outreach is targeted to niche, industry-specific publications, then the earned media placement increases. Suffice to say, small media are more likely to pick up a story because the niche group of people they cater to are homogenous.

As a result, marketers spend less time pitching, but more time doing front end research, and the client gets better results because of the homogenous niche of the small media, and more readers can turn into leads that generate conversion.

Understanding the concept of inverse proportional services and how it applies to your own situation is a challenging way of thinking, but one that can ultimately help make decisions about a company’s maturity level and how it should be allocating its resources.

What is your organization doing to turn this internet marketing paradox on its ear?

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