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What is Narrowcasting? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 A Narrowcasting Prank
  • 0:53 Origin of the Term
  • 2:16 Marketing and Advertising
  • 3:47 Radio and Podcasts
  • 4:35 Political Campaigns
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you will learn about an information delivery method known as narrowcasting. You will learn when the term was coined and how TV, radio, advertisers and politicians have used it as a tool for delivering information.

A Narrowcasting Prank

In 2013, a Facebook user played an elaborate prank on his roommate. He created a custom advertisement and paid to post it on Facebook. Then he used the ad targeting tools on the site to narrow his audience to one person: his roommate. The ad would only be displayed for his roommate, a professional sword swallower, whom he knew had trouble swallowing pills. When the sword swallower logged into Facebook one day and saw an ad saying 'Trouble Swallowing Pills? Does it seem ironic that swallowing swords is easy and then small pills make you gag?', he freaked out. How did Facebook know such a personal thing about him? He was the victim of a prank made possible through narrowcasting.

Origin of the Term

You may know about broadcasting, but what about narrowcasting? Unlike broadcasting, which involves delivering information to the mass public, narrowcasting is a term that describes delivering information or media to a specific or narrow group of people. Although it sounds like a new term, J.C.R. Licklider officially coined the term in 1967 while writing about the future of broadcast television. He predicted 'a multiplicity of television networks aimed at serving the needs of smaller, specialized audiences' and then named this type of transmission 'narrowcasting'.' Indeed, today many TV channels are made for specific groups and interests (like HGTV, for home design aficionados, and ESPN, for sports fans).

Licklider recognized that within the broad public, there were very distinct groups with distinct interests. For example, single men want to watch different television shows than families with small children. Licklider understood that you are more likely to watch a TV show you are personally interested in. Radio stations, advertisers and even politicians have found narrowcasting to be a more effective way to send out information and media for public consumption.

Marketing and Advertising

Narrowcasting has allowed marketers and advertisers to identify a target market and create messages and ads that are specific and effective. In the past, advertisers would simply distribute as many of their ads as possible. They assumed that having more TV commercials and billboards meant more people would see and respond to their products.

However, consumers were soon desensitized by too many ads. To combat this, advertisers and marketers narrowed down where they would show their ads. For example, if a company sells protein powder, they might use a muscular man in their ads and place those ads in gym bathrooms or on ESPN. That protein powder company knows that young men interested in sports are more likely to buy their product, so instead of broadcasting, they narrowcast to their target market.

Companies eager to identify and learn more about their target audiences increasingly use data mining. Data mining means collecting information about a person by looking at their activity online. Maybe you visited some wedding blogs, and on Facebook, you are listed as a woman in your twenties. A company can build a profile of you by looking at this data and then send you ads about wedding rings, because it is more likely that you will be interested in them. That is why on Facebook, you will often see sidebar ads that seem very specific to you.

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