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Which Is Best To Reach A Niche Audience?


By Thomas DeRosa, CEO, Physician Retraining & Reentry

When trying to target a very specific audience to promote your product or service, is paid media or public relations best?

Paid media strategies, including pay-per-click ads, boosted social media ads or banner ads on websites, are powerful promotional tools. This is especially true when these strategies are compared to the paid marketing tactics available only a couple of decades ago. Previously, a business owner placed an ad in newspapers and magazines or on billboards, television and radio and then hoped for the best. Now, a business can hand-select its audience based on gender, race, age, geography, interests, education, online behavior, purchases, etc.

Meanwhile, public relations is a more traditional tactic used to create awareness of a product, service or brand. PR is sometimes referred to as “earned media” because, among other tactics, it includes using pitches or press releases to “earn” mention in a newspaper, magazine, blog, television news segment, etc. Businesses have less control over if—and how—the information will be shared with the media outlet’s audience. That’s up to the reporters, editors and producers. Businesses target audiences by selecting which outlets to share information based on geographic reach, industry or focus, such as lifestyle, business or health care.

Paid media offers control where PR does not. Paid media often provides instant gratification where PR usually does not. Paid media works autonomously while PR depends on third parties. Paid media looks like a great way to get a business’s message or product before the right target. But, looks can be deceiving.

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Paid Media And Niche Target Audiences

My company provides the opportunity for licensed physicians in the U.S. to train, or retrain, as primary care physicians, then reenter the medical field to fill gaps in a critical area of health care. There are a number of situations for which physicians enroll in the Physicians Retraining & Reentry program: Some are retired and want to return to practice while others are winding down but aren’t quite ready to retire; some are women who took time off work to raise children and want a refresher course before returning to practice; some are specialists, like surgeons or gynecologists, who want or need to change practices; and some want primary care physician training to provide health care to underserved communities.

All these people are my business’s target audience. But trying to categorize and reach this very diverse population through paid media tactics proved nearly impossible. The little drop-down menus on social media ad platforms were almost funny. Age? Gender? Interests? Geographic location? Advanced degrees? The answer to each of these was an unhelpful “Yes.”

In addition, physicians, by nature of their work, don’t spend their days seated in front of computers like those in traditional office jobs. While the National Institutes of Health conducted a survey in 2014 that showed personal and professional use of social media by physicians is increasing, only 65% of the 4,000 physicians who responded say they use social media for professional reasons.

Despite the red flags, we pursued a paid media strategy on several fronts:

• A cost-per-acquisition digital advertising strategy on LinkedIn and Facebook seemed like a smart and creative approach compared to pay-per-click advertising but yielded almost no interest or engagement.

• We created a series of landing pages targeted to different audiences, such as retirees returning to practice or physicians looking for a change to avoid burnout. Then, we linked to the pages on three social media platforms and paid to boost the posts. Analytics showed an unremarkable number of clicks on the landing pages and the phone barely rang.

• PRR paid $30,000 for a banner advertisement in a health care-focused online publication for several months and didn’t receive a single click, call or lead from the placement.

Public Relations Pays Off

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Luckily, we didn’t put all our promotional eggs in the paid media basket. We continued to pursue more traditional public relations tactics:

• Press releases to general and health care-focused publications on developments or updates related to the program.

• Pitches to these same publications with interesting stories about PRR enrollees.

• Pursuing opportunities for PRR’s chief medical officer and other key stakeholders to be interviewed.

These public relations tactics take a little more work, as you must find and develop the topic ideas and then diligently research and contact the appropriate outlets and people within them. This also was a financial investment, as we hired a PR professional to carry this out.

There was, admittedly, some skepticism about whether or not PR was worth the cost. Compared to paid media, which utilizes the “shotgun approach” of spraying the information out there and hoping it hits, PR is the “single-shot strategy.” You get one chance to share your information with an outlet and hope they pursue a story. Ultimately, whether your information makes it to print or broadcast is completely out of your hands, and that can be frustrating.

To our surprise, the public relations strategy worked. Even one brief mention in a reputable, national publication generated more calls than that one banner ad!

Lessons Learned: A Niche Audience Is Every Audience

What we learned is that a niche audience is often every audience. Trying to categorize people on so many variables and demographics leaves them without categories. We realized our audience was, simply, people who happened to be physicians.

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Also, as many studies show, people trust—and pay more attention to—articles and reports by reputable journalists more than advertisements. A 2019 study by the Institute for Public Relations found that most people found earned media more credible than advertising and other mediums, including self-published blogs. This explains why a single quote or reference in one well-respected publication yielded the business leads the ads did not.

Each of these tactics has a place in the vast world of promotional options. But understanding that what appears to be a narrow audience is actually a wide audience taught us that strategies that attempt to target by characteristics are not worthwhile strategies.


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