Courting Niche Viewers
Small networks devise clever marketing tactics to lure subscribers
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/13/2005 7:00:00 PM
After three years in the U.S., TV5—the French-focused cable channel—has found the perfect way to entice subscribers: buy them a gourmet dinner and teach them French.
Partnered with Time Warner, the channel offered free dinners at 10 of Manhattan's top French restaurants to 50,000 upscale digital subscribers as a reward for signing up. A similar TV5 mail campaign conducted with Adelphia in Beverly Hills, Calif., in November and December offered an estimated 65,000 digital subscribers eight weeks of free French lessons.
TV5's marketing effort paid off. Working with cable partners Time Warner, Adelphia and Cox, it averaged a 1% conversion rate—a combined total of 5,000 new subscribers.
Indeed, in a cluttered TV landscape, niche cable networks see an advantage in appealing to a narrowly defined audience base. But they have to go that extra mile to attract subscribers. To compensate for a lack of funds, especially in their first few years, budget-strapped networks are devising clever marketing campaigns, often teamed with cable companies, to attract the select group of customers they desire.
Yet even with the help of three of the largest cable operators in the U.S., “it's a challenge,” says Patrice Courtaban, COO of TV5 USA. He says all of them provided essential funding for the promotional campaign, as well as key access to their companies' databases. Though the network is the third-largest international channel, backed by state financing from France, Belgium, Canada, Quebec and Switzerland, it's struggling in the U.S.
By the end of 2004, TV5 had persuaded only 36,000 subscribers to pay an extra $10 a month to add it to their cable lineups. Thus, the ability to zero in on potential new customers, a specific microcosm of Francophiles, is critical to increasing TV5's presence here.
To capitalize on its promotional success, TV5 will launch creative mailings in new markets, including Boston, Washington and Chicago, this fall and will team with Alliance Francaise in March to offer three months of free TV5 for new students.
“Niche networks have to get involved in this sort of bootstrap, one-viewer-at-a-time marketing because the TV landscape is so fragmented,” says Gerry Philpott, president and CEO of E-Poll, an Encino, Calif.-based market-research firm specializing in broadcast and cable television. “Even a small network still has to be supported by millions interested in the subject. If they don't, it's almost impossible to survive.”
Moreover, networks that aren't subscription-based need something more: Advertisers that want to reach their viewers, connections to the cable operators for carriage deals and programmers that can provide content.
“You have got to have at least one of the three legs of the stool before you can even consider trying to launch something,” says Philpott, who estimates six to 10 networks attempt to launch each year.
One key way for niche networks to stay afloat is to partner with cable giants. Pairing with a cable operator is productive and efficient, says Cathy Rasenberger, president of Rasenberger Media, a consultancy that assists startups. “The best way to market is to promote together. It's cost-effective and highly directed to the consumer the network is trying to reach.”
To that end, NBA TV decided to join with Comcast in Denver to offer new subscribers mini basketball hoops and tickets to the NBA All-Star Jam Session, which the network is airing.
The Tennis Channel does even more. It pairs with affiliates to offer free seat cushions and binoculars to cable customers who bring their bills to matches where the network has a booth—even if they don't subscribe to the Tennis Channel.
But getting the cable company on board isn't easy.
Niche networks need a hook. They have to convince the cable operators they can increase digital-cable penetration, for example, or improve community relations, says John Zamoiski, COO of entertainment and marketing firm NMA.
Zamoiski has helped niche networks, including Rainbow's on-demand channel MagRack, endear themselves to cable companies' customer-service reps with inexpensive lunchboxes, scented candles and board games. The personal touch serves a dual function: It keeps the reps happy and educates them about the niche networks.
Zamoiski also corrals national advertisers to market with the networks as an added incentive to get cable companies on board. “I don't care if a network has diamonds or rhinestones in their budget,” he says. “We can work with tiny networks and still get results.”
Other networks lean on parent companies for support. TV One, a lifestyle network for African-Americans, advertises almost entirely through Radio One, a major investor, daily targeting approximately 13 million listeners nationwide.
An added bonus of radio is the opportunity to announce TV One's location in the cable lineup in each city. “It's one big voice that speaks out and helps us a lot,” says Susan Banks, SVP of creative services and marketing for the year-old TV One. “It is advertising we could not afford right now as a startup.”
By contrast, ImaginAsian Entertainment, which owns the pan-Asian network ImaginAsian TV, took the unusual step of opening a movie theater on New York's Upper East Side last summer, specifically to promote the network. Posters and video clips of its programs are displayed during daily movie showings. The company also launched ImaginAsian Radio, a weekly variety hour in San Francisco, to cross-promote the TV network. Plus, discussions are in progress to open movie theaters in California.
CSTV, the College Sports TV network, is taking a more conventional approach to marketing itself. The network is running “TGI Hockey” sing-along spots and distributing pocket schedules in college arenas to attract viewers.
Of all the niche networks, Sí TV—geared to hip young Latinos—has mastered the art of the freebie. During the 2004 presidential campaign, it teamed with Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, to lavish college kids with Sí-branded lip balms, CD cases, leather wristbands, caps, pens and postcards. Sí TV will soon hand out DVDs of The Motorcycle Diaries, via a Web giveaway.
For even the best of startups, says Philpott, survival can be tough. For example, Trio, backed by NBC, earns rave reviews for its programming but is struggling. While he won't speculate on the fatality rate of niche properties, he says: “There is no magic bullet.”
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