Why digital may not take all of the ad dollars: that darned Pareto Principle

Digital advertising spending has grown over the last decade by stealing a lot of share from print magazines and newspapers and some other categories. But the odd thing is that ad spending in North America for both TV and radio advertising is NOT collapsing in the same way as print. In fact, depending on the year, both are still rising! I have a theory as to why.

This gets a little tricky, so bear with me! You may remember something called the Pareto Principle, also known at the 80/20 rule? It says that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This isn’t true in every industry, but it IS true a lot of the time. Many companies get about 4/5 of their revenues from one fifth of their customers, for instance.

It is also true of many digital behaviors, according to Nielsen. The top 20% of users are responsible for 76% of in home Internet usage on a PC, 83% of smartphone video, and a shocking 87% of streaming on a PC. (Is hyper-Pareto a thing?) On the other hand, the 80/20 rule does NOT apply to traditional TV and AM/FM radio. The top fifth of viewers/listeners still account for more than their share, of course…but they represent ‘only’ 52% (TV) and 48% (radio) of all usage. Much less than Pareto would suggest. Why is this important?

If you are an advertiser, and you want to sell a product with a very precise and targeted market in mind, digital is awesome! You can spend only what you need to, and ‘waste’ very little of your ad dollars. (It doesn’t mean they always buy, but at least you aren’t paying for ads to be seen by people who would never purchase your product.)

But what if you are selling a product that EVERYBODY might want to buy? In that case, if you buy (for example) display ads on video streaming on a PC, 87% of your ads will be seen by 20% of the market, and the rest of your market will see very few of your ads.

That suggests that some products are better for digital, but others are better for traditional broadcast media like radio and TV. If true, that would suggest that the spending gains seen by digital in the past few years may start slowing, TV and radio will stay resilient or even grow, and that their relative shares will stabilise for the next few years.

Interestingly, that is exactly what seems to be happening when we look at ad spending trends for the first half of 2016: TV and radio are doing better than expected, and digital is still growing, but a little less than expected.

The implications for the future of TV and radio advertising are intriguing. Yes, audiences are dropping a little, but ad spend may be more robust.



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