The Internet-fueled explosion of entertainment and information options for consumers means that businesses now have a nearly insurmountable mountain of channels, platforms, devices and techniques available to reach current and prospective customers. Take a major market like Tampa, for example:

  • over 45 over-the-air (free) broadcast TV channels
  • at least 62 FM radio stations
  • at least 47 AM radio stations
  • over 300 TV channels from multi-channel providers such as Spectrum
  • Streaming Audio (Pandora, Podcasts, etc.)
  • OTT (Over-the-Top) and CTV (Connected TV) (multiple providers)
  • Online Ad Networks from the well-known (YouTube, LinkedIn, Yahoo) to the obscure (Viewbix, Epom, Adknowledge)
  • SEM (Search Engine Marketing, or Pay-Per-Click)
  • SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
  • Email Marketing
  • Social Media Marketing (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.)
  • Mobile Marketing
  • Geofencing
  • Native Advertising
  • Retargeting
  • Content Marketing
  • Online Display Ads

For each of the above, there are as many salespeople as there are frozen bodies on Everest. If you’re a business decision-maker, you likely field several calls a day from these folks. And the above is by no means a comprehensive list. When you begin to drill down on the digital choices to look at the supporting datasets (primary, second-party, third-party) and the multiple targeting (demo/geo/behavioral), reporting, and analytics options, the complexity faced by local advertisers increases by another order of magnitude.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, it used to be a choice of three (maybe four) TV stations, a handful of radio stations, the local daily newspaper, and the Yellow Pages. Maybe a billboard or two. That’s it. An easy hill to climb.

More options are a good thing, right?

In 1992 Springsteen sang about “57 Channels (and Nothin’ on)”. He wasn’t simply talking about the vast amount of vapid, meaningless content – what Zappa referred to as “the slime” – spewing forth from your cathode ray tube (though, to be fair, that was part of his point). He was really pointing out that the explosion of choices on cable led to an endless search for “something better” to watch, and the suspicion that if you didn’t check the next channel (and the next, and the next) you might be missing out on that something better. In the song, his girl leaves him, presumably for “something better”.

In 2020, we know that people are consuming more content “on-demand”. They are self-curating, selecting the content they want (news, information, entertainment, sports, recipes, how-to tips, music, etc.), when, where and on whatever device or platform they want. Channel-surfing has largely been replaced by search on our TVs, computers, and smartphones. This makes the media choice explosion at least a bit more manageable for consumers. It may even be making it easier for consumers to choose from the more than 50 brands of laundry detergent (Do we really need that many? Do we have that many different kinds of laundry?).

For advertisers though – especially local, independent businesses – the amount and complexity of choice in media presents major challenges. In “The Paradox of Choice” Barry Schwartz argues that an overwhelming abundance of choices is increasing stress, raising expectations to an unreasonable level, and making us less happy. Nowhere is this truer than with a local business owner that has neither the knowledge, time, or internal resources to properly evaluate and select the precise combination of media options that aligns with that business’s brand identity and strategy.  Or is best suited to her needs and opportunities. And is within her budget. So, what to do?

Stay calm and find your Media Guide.

It might be you. If this is something that you deem sufficiently important, or if you simply have an active interest in this area, you can become an expert (or expert enough). Start searching and curate your own media/marketing education. There are how-to articles, videos, whitepapers and curricula online for just about every marketing and media topic you can think of (and a lot that you likely wouldn’t think of).

It might be your media rep. Don’t have the time to become your own Marketing Director? Another choice is to find a trustworthy, knowledgeable media rep. Yes, they are out there. The major media companies compete hard for talent. In today’s marketplace, good media employers recruit and retain talent not just by compensating them well, but by providing ongoing training and rewarding individuals that clearly demonstrate a passion for their work by staying on top of the latest developments in media and advertising. Look for someone who has some tenure with their company. Test their knowledge by asking insightful questions. Check their LinkedIn profile to see who has recommended them, and for what skills. A good media rep understands that their relationship with you is long term and depends upon their recommendations leading to your success. Beware the rep that claims only their company’s products will solve your problems; a media mix of some kind is nearly always called for.

It might be an employee. If your budget allows, you could hire someone for whom marketing/media is a passion. Or perhaps you already have someone in your employ for whom marketing would be a good fit. Depending on the size of your business, these responsibilities may not require full-time attention. Is there excess capacity somewhere on your team that you could be making better use of? Perhaps there’s someone that has shown an interest and aptitude. Prioritize customer knowledge over product knowledge. Maybe someone who is directly customer-facing, who has real, first-hand insight into your ideal customer and what makes them tick…?

It might be an agency. Google “How to choose an advertising agency”. You’ll find a lot of good (and often self-serving) advice. Much of it is common sense, but here are my thoughts:

  • Have clear expectations. What – specifically – do you want them to do? Media strategy? Media planning and buying? Traditional media? Digital media? All media? Do you need help with creative and messaging? Or help with your brand? Or do you need a new website? Be clear about your expectations and make sure that you and your would-be agency are on the same page and have agreed on the KPIs (key performance indicators) that will determine how well they have done their job.
  • Consider scale. Is the agency large enough to accommodate your needs? Or is it perhaps so large that you’d be a “small fish” in a big pond, competing with larger clients for their attention? Or is it so small and specialized that they might be challenged in keeping up with your needs and anticipated growth?
  • Communication. Do they take the time to “get” your business? Do they listen more than they talk (especially at the beginning)? Are they transparent about their methods, practices, and approach, or do they come off as the “mighty and powerful Oz” (Don’t look behind the curtain!)?
  • Alignment. Are their values in sync with yours? Ideally, the advertiser/agency relationship is a close one, involving common goals and frequent, open, and honest sharing of information. Each party is accountable to the other. Do you run a “tight ship” with a lot of rigor, discipline, and an established hierarchy? Or is your organization flatter and more (small “d”) democratic? Is it better for your agency to reflect or to complement your values?
  • Focus. B2B or B2C? Experience in the area that’s right for you can lead to better, quicker-to-market solutions. Or it can lead them to simply recommend a version of something they did for someone else, overlooking your unique brand identity and personality. You’ll only know for sure if you explore this area with good questions.

For a local business, it’s not good enough to simply survive the climb. You have to get there with all of your senses intact so you can enjoy the view. To do that, find a good guide.