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Is offline marketing really dead? How SMEs can cash in on those large and often overlooked offline audiences

11 minute read

Polly Kay
posters in underground station

Virtually all modern businesses regardless of size recognise the importance of effective marketing for online audiences, and this is a continually growing and evolving field that is advancing as quickly as the technology that supports it.

The rapid increase and expansion of our ever-more connected lives including online shopping, mobile browsing and the use of smart devices have provided advertisers and marketing professionals with a continually expanding audience of potential buyer demographics to target. This is all backed up with the data and insights that help to inform and fine-tune campaigns to achieve the best yield.

All of this combined, along with the fact that 90% of UK households have internet access and 85% of UK residents use smartphones and so, are accessible to online marketers seeking to target them, means that offline marketing is a largely neglected area for many businesses that operate solely or mainly online.

For many SMEs with a limited marketing budget who are looking to ensure that they maximise the ROI of their ad spend, it can be very tempting to overlook traditional or offline marketing entirely.

Many traditional offline marketing approaches are in decline today as a result of the growth of online marketing, even across platforms that were historically much in demand, such as print advertising. As an example, the Daily Mail’s print advertising revenue fell 4% in the first quarter of 2017, whilst the brand’s Mail Online portal reports increased revenues of 19% year-on-year. This trend is reflected internationally too.

Even traditional outdoor advertising companies are jumping on the digital bandwagon, with both Clear Channel and JCDecaux stating that half of 2017’s sales targets were concerned with cornering the digital ad market rather than billboard advertising buyers.

Television ad revenue in the UK dropped by 3.2% in 2017 too, although there is evidence to suggest that TV advertising is making something of a comeback this year as a result of declining viewer figures in favour of online streaming services and so, falling prices for prime TV ad slots.

So, is offline marketing really dead, or should smart businesses be dedicating some of their marketing budget to offline marketing? In this article, I will answer these questions and share some insights on the pros and cons of traditional or offline marketing for SMEs.

What is offline marketing?

Offline marketing or traditional marketing is any type of marketing endeavour or ad campaign that is undertaken away from the internet, and that does not rely upon internet connectivity or the use of smart devices to get its message across.

Some of the most common offline or traditional marketing channels include:

  • Television advertising
  • Radio advertising
  • Print advertising in magazines and newspapers
  • Printed catalogues and brochures
  • Billboards and advertising hoardings
  • Sponsorship and partnerships with events and charities to gain exposure
  • Telemarketing and cold calling
  • In-store demonstrations and promotions
  • Couponing
  • Direct mailings and mailshots
  • Circulars, pamphlets or leaflets
  • Posters

posters on wall

Why do many modern businesses concentrate solely or mainly on online marketing?

For businesses of all sizes and ages but particularly for online-only retailers or those whose digital presence forms the cornerstone of their brand, offline marketing is often disregarded as a marketing channel early on in the decision-making process, if the concept is even considered at all. The reasons behind this are numerous and far from invalid, but businesses that don’t at least consider integrating offline marketing into their wider campaigns might be missing a trick.

Perhaps the two main reasons behind why many modern businesses concentrate on online marketing channels are simply cost and convenience. Generally, online ad campaigns are less expensive to run and much more scalable, with cost per click advertising, programmatic ad placement and Google AdSense offering a high degree of budgetary control and the ability to adapt on the go, something that is absent from most offline advertising models.

This level of control and flexibility offers the convenience modern businesses expect, along with the ability to launch a campaign or target a niche or portal quickly and effectively, even with a low initial ad budget.

Audience availability is something else that influences the decision-making process, and virtually any business can find and target their niche demographics with online campaigns as long as they know how to find them.

When it comes to offline advertising, getting your content seen or heard by the right audience is much harder to achieve without launching a very broad (and potentially costly) horizontal campaign, particularly if you’re targeting national rather than local customers.

The ability to personalise marketing and ad content to deliver the most appropriate version to any given recipient is something else that online marketing offers that is absent or harder to find in most offline advertising methods, but something that is very important to 80% of today’s online consumers.

Additionally, online marketing and advertising comes supported with analytics, hard data and a wealth of other insights that make it easier for marketers to track the efficacy of any given campaign or ad, fine-tune it to improve its ROI, and target its content to appeal to specific demographics.

Once again, the ability to access cold, hard data on ad spend and correlating yield is something that is much harder to achieve with offline channels, and something that many modern marketers find very disconcerting.

Are you losing customers by ignoring offline marketing as an option?

Online marketing offers a number of advantages over offline methods, but this doesn’t mean that businesses should automatically discount using traditional marketing methods as part of their campaigns and promotions. The very fact that so many businesses – particularly SMEs – ignore offline channels in the main or at the very least, don’t factor in their usage until the business really begins to grow and expand, makes this potentially a very fertile growth area for SMEs who are willing to take a punt into the world of traditional offline marketing channels.

After all, even though it might seem like many of us spend most of our waking hours glued to a computer screen or swiping through our smartphones whilst ignoring the world around us, we’re not Sims. We still have to navigate the real world every day, where we are continually if unwittingly exposed to marketing and advertising collateral that all filters through into our consciousness and influences our future preferences, brand perceptions, and purchasing decisions.

What type of customers can offline marketing reach?

If you asked the average businessperson what type of demographics offline marketing can reach, you’d probably get an answer along the lines of “people over a certain age (generally anywhere from 50 upwards) who don’t or can’t use the internet, or that view the internet with a degree of suspicion.”

This may well be true, but it is not the whole story. Traditional, offline advertising channels can be highly effective at reaching audiences that don’t use or don’t like to use the internet, and this is indeed often older people for whom the internet doesn’t play a huge part in their day-to-day lives.

As an aside, when I polled some colleagues on this very topic, the second most popular answer I received to the “what type of customers” question was “young hipsters,” and that is a piece of information that is also worth filing away for later on too if that is your target niche!

Even people who use the internet regularly and that choose to shop online where possible are susceptible to the effects of offline marketing, and when it comes to making an impression and gaining a high enough level of exposure to each prospect to make your message stick, offline marketing can be highly effective.

Is there any value in targeting regular internet users and online shoppers as part of an offline marketing campaign?

Offline marketing can help you to reach customers who don’t use the internet at all, who don’t use it regularly, or who are not proficient in internet use, but it can also help you to get your message across to regular internet users more effectively too in support of your online marketing collateral.

Ad impression frequency per prospect is something that is much discussed in online marketing and it is widely accepted that one impression is not enough to give the push that most prospects need. Effective offline advertising can deliver multiple impressions to individual prospects highly effectively if their audiences, format and delivery are right. For instance, thousands of people walk past well-situated billboards every day, and regular radio listeners will hear the same ads repeated several times on their channel of choice over the course of the average week.

Additionally, most regular internet users are very ad-savvy and likely to critically review any claims made in online ads and be speculative about the authority and veracity of such content. Public perceptions on the legal requirement for honesty, integrity and advertising standards compliance for traditional ad methods such as print and TV means that statements and claims made via traditional channels often hold more authority for their recipients than the same message delivered by the same brand online.

The cons of offline marketing for online retailers

If you operate solely or largely online and want to consider integrating offline marketing into your future campaigns, there is a lot to bear in mind.

There is less margin for error with offline ads and often, no means by which to adapt a campaign on the go if it is falling short. After all, when you’ve paid for that billboard ad you can’t go up and edit the message if it’s not working out, and you can’t easily recall a print ad campaign that nose-dives after the first couple of publications carrying it are released.

Additionally, there is a fine line between targeting your ad content to appeal to your specific demographic of buyers and personalising it so much that your campaign holds no relevance for others who might read or see it, which can make offline marketing uneconomical for certain campaigns, ad media types and niches.

Choosing the right offline channels for the type of content you are sharing and the audience it is designed for is vital too, and understanding the level of exposure that different channels can achieve and how they can be targeted is not always simple.

Is offline marketing worth it for the average SME?

Every SME should certainly pay some consideration to integrating offline marketing into their wider marketing suite, even if the idea is ultimately found to be unviable. Most marketers at every level undervalue the impact of traditional media channels, even when faced with hard data that says otherwise.

Given the sheer number of different traditional marketing channels and approaches available to SMEs, the chances that one or more of them will tick all of the right boxes when it comes to audience exposure and ROI are high.

Determining the right channel to use and the right approach to take to it depends on who you are targeting, what you are offering, and how you want your brand and business to be perceived.

If you offer local services that potentially, all or most of the population will need at some point – such as dental services, window cleaning or car servicing – then broad, horizontal campaigns may be a great fit and enable you to consider a wide range of different ad channels from radio adverts to mailshots to cold calling.

However, if you offer niche goods or services to a narrow vertical market or sell online or nationally, your targeting and so, ad type and format will need to be much more carefully designed to speak specifically to those prospects, and delivered in such a way as to reach the maximum number of them without wasting exposure on people to whom what you offer is not relevant.

plants growing

How to reach new audiences and increase your yield with offline marketing

A well-placed billboard advert might seem like something that will be seen by a true and broad cross section of the community – but if that billboard is placed in a busy commuter train station on an intercity route, the type of demographic groups that will view it will be rather different than the same billboard placed on a high street or a mixed-use location.

Print adverts can offer access to offline audiences with a greater degree of demographic targeting due to the readerships of different publications, and the same is true for radio and TV adverts too. The type of channels such ads are broadcast on and the programmes that they are placed in all enable offline marketers to select narrower niche demographics for more intuitive targeting.

When it comes to mailshots and circulars, addressed mail that contains a personalised message allows you to reach out to prior customers, known prospects and others whose data you have already captured with more efficiency, whilst circulars and leaflet drops have a much broader, more horizontal audience reach, but are also more likely to be ignored.

This means that if you are offering a service that is less dependent on demographic targeting and more on local exposure such as local services, a broad mailshot might be more appropriate than a personally tailored offer.

Knowing who your audience is for any channel, and whether or not you can identify and target vertical markets with them or if they will by design be broader and less niche in nature is vital, as is determining whether a horizontal or a vertical campaign is truly the best approach.

Why taking a dual-pronged approach with both online and offline marketing is generally wise

Offline marketing can feed back to your online campaigns and support your online marketing collateral – after all, when was the last time you saw a billboard that didn’t incorporate a website address, or a QR/NFC code tag?

Offline marketing can also add authority and enhance brand perception too. If a prospect keeps coming across your business or ads online and then begins to see them in the real world too, the different methods of exposure and the time dilation effect all contribute to reinforcing your message and making it stand out.

As mentioned, public perception of offline ads is often better than that for online content, and so supporting an online campaign with an offline element too can make a huge difference to your ultimate ROI.

For most online SMEs other than those offering local services or targeting exclusively older people, offline marketing alone is unlikely to prove highly effective, but it can enhance and support your online campaigns.

If your target market is hard to reach online (such as may be the case if you offer services dedicated to older people, persons on a low income or even tourists), offline advertising may well be the most appropriate approach, and the one you should dedicate most of your ad spend to. However, few people don’t use the internet at all nor have access to friends and family who do, so once again a dual-pronged approach is usually best.

One caveat to bear in mind when integrating offline marketing into your wider campaigns is that analysing the efficacy of offline campaigns and building up a true picture of their value isn’t always simple.

Whilst you will easily be able to gain access to data outlining say, how many people walk past a billboard each day, the listener figures for a radio show or the circulation figures for a magazine, knowing how many leads, enquiries, or customers these things actually generate is not always simple, particularly if you are integrating both online and offline channels into the same campaign.

If an online campaign is performing well and the data supports this, it can be tempting to ditch your offline channels and dedicate more of your marketing spend to online methods instead. Whilst this may be appropriate in some situations, the modern marketer’s data-driven working styles are often at odds with traditional marketing, within which assigning gains back to their trigger point is sometimes far from intuitive.

If someone passes your billboard every day for a week and then decides to Google you as a result of this and then click on a paid or promoted search result link to your site, the data will likely give an impression of the acquisition coming from your site’s SEO or AdWords campaign – when in fact, that offline billboard is what took care of the heavy lifting and piqued their interest in the first place.

Getting comfortable with the intangibles is something that first-time offline marketers need to get to grips with quickly, lest they risk ditching a successful campaign before it even gets going for want of hard numbers outlining the buyer journey.

This means that in order to establish the success or otherwise of an offline campaign or the offline elements of a campaign, there are a few things you need to do.

First of all, try to factor in measurable data points where possible, so that you can assign an uptick in traffic or sales to the right source. Using a unique URL, phone number and email address for offline ads can let you know how much traffic from offline ads your online content is getting, as can adding unique discount codes and incentives to offline collateral that can be input online to help you to build up a picture of how your prospects are finding you.

Additionally, when you integrate an offline campaign into your existing online collateral, commit to pursuing it for a set period of time during which you carefully monitor all of your communication channels, including phone, email and other options.

During this period of time, you will be able to see if there is a broad uptick in the desired actions you are hoping to achieve that cannot be assigned to another cause (such as a new online campaign or social media buzz) that can help you to see and assess the value of your offline ads.

It is also important to remember that achieving the desired action you are looking for from your prospects can take longer when it is triggered by offline collateral. Few people that receive a circular (such as a takeaway menu) will take action on it the day it arrives – and enquiries or sales might still be coming in at a slow but steady rate weeks or even months down the line.

The same is true for building brand perception with offline advertising methods too. If you undertake a comprehensive brand awareness campaign offline, this may not result in an immediate uptick in sales.

However, the next time your prospects see one of your products or have to choose between you and another competing brand, your previous efforts might pay dividends, and provide that added incentive to choose you – and give you the opportunity to gain a lifelong client who might otherwise never have found you if you hadn’t targeted them offline.

Polly Kay is a British copywriter and content writer with a digital marketing background. After studying Marketing (BA Hons) at university, she first honed her skills as a copywriter by working in-house for an award-winning creative agency in London before branching out on her own in 2012. Today, Polly Kay Copywriting and Content Writing serves clients ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK to well-known multinational brands. Polly specialises in SEO-friendly content writing for online use, and both brand-led and direct response copywriting for all applications.

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