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Big tent or small tent? How your audience size affects your marketing strategy

7 min read2023-04-04Grant Hendricks

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘big tent politics?

It’s an easy-to-grasp metaphor for politicians and parties with broad appeal. Compared to their opponents, big tent parties try to include as many people under their ‘tent’ as possible.

At their best, big tent parties are jack-of-all-trades, masters of none. For instance, they may throw a bone to right-leaning moderates with tax breaks for business while enticing left-wing moderates with investment in green transit or some other widespread social issue.

At their worst, big tent parties tend to speak out of both sides of their mouths. They’re seen as non-committal, power-hungry, and ideologically bankrupt.

Compare big tent parties to little tent parties. These are parties that unabashedly represent one point of view. They do not attempt to woo voters from ‘the other side,’ whichever side may be. Their strength is in their conviction — and that of their voting base.

Not better or worse, just different

Big tent parties tend to struggle to get their followers to the polls. If they do, they can win in a landslide.

Small tent parties face the opposite problem. Getting their followers to the polls is easy, but they may not have the raw numbers to win. They tend to be more strategic about creating their voting bloc since their biggest challenge is getting past the post to seize victory.

The ‘tent’ model of marketing

Your website has a tent, too. Is it a big or a small one, and does it matter?

In marketing, a big tent is a broad audience with low engagement. You’ve got the numbers in terms of raw traffic, but your conversion rate may be lacking. A small tent is a narrow audience with high engagement. You reach a few people but convert a high percentage of them.

It’s unlikely you’re a pure example of big tent or small tent. You’re probably medium-small or medium-big. Nonetheless, I bet your audience skews one way or the other. The real question is: should you widen your tent or shrink it?

Big tent marketing

Big tent marketing is everything to everyone. Rather than owning a niche, big tent marketers try to influence the public, maintaining a high brand awareness among a large cohort of customers. This doesn’t mean they aren’t tailoring messages and strategizing outreach to specific groups. Instead, they’ve chosen to target many kinds of audiences at once. This has the obvious benefit of reaching a broad segment of the general population — and the obvious drawback of being resource intensive to do well.

What often happens with big tent marketing is that each target group receives a less tailored, less effective campaign than a small tent marketer can provide. This is simply a matter of division. Even given a much larger initial resource pool than a small tent marketer, the complexity of running a big tent causes inefficiencies and dilutes the effectiveness of each channel. The war fought by these marketers is against this inefficiency.

We would tend to see low conversion rates but high traffic from big tent marketing campaigns — at least relative to small tent strategies. This works really well for some business models. You may have encountered popular sponsors for podcasts and YouTube videos like NordVPN, Fresh Box, or other subscription services. Often, these are products that appeal to a broad audience anyway. Their lifetime value per customer is relatively high and predictable due to their subscription model. This means that casting a wide net via sponsorships and display advertising can be profitable in the long run. Even if it takes a year of advertising before they hook a potential customer, they can expect to make their money back in a few months via the subscription. At scale, this kind of marketing works well.

The American Democrats are an excellent example of a big tent in politics. They position themselves roughly at the centre of American political discourse. Generally moderate while also allowing space for American progressives (big tent, remember?), the party tries to reach voters across economic, cultural, and racial lines. They tend to win the popular vote but may not always win the election — their base is less efficient at getting to the polls.

Small tent marketing

Small tent marketing is about reaching the right group at the right time with the right message. That message may be utterly ineffective at reaching other groups, which is okay. The philosophy of a small tent marketer is that there is as much opportunity within small audiences as within big audiences. The smaller the audience, the more effectively we can reach individuals. It is a low-waste philosophy. Efforts and resources are spent on planning, strategizing, and targeting right users. A small tent marketer sees no reason to please the crowd if they can please the most potent or valuable members within that crowd. They may even produce messaging intended to shrink their audience, pushing away members they perceive as low value or unlikely to convert.

Small tent communications can court controversy or present offers that exclude fringe audiences. In marketing, we might see small tent businesses openly promote their services as more expensive than their competitors while preaching quality and custom-tailored service. It won’t be for everyone; lower-income people may be unable to afford their services. Thrifty customers may not feel the quality or customization is worth the cost. That is to the business’ benefit: lower-income people can’t afford their services, so spending sales resources on them isn’t efficient. Especially thrifty customers may try to nickel and dime them, so it may be better to avoid the potential conflict of working with that customer. If their customer base is big enough, turning away less efficient leads is worthwhile.

A real-world example of this would be Apple and the iPhone. Although iPhones seem ubiquitous, they only represent a minority share of the global smartphone market. As of 2021, less than 30% of smartphones run iOS. The remainder runs Android. Despite this big gap in market share, Apple recently ranked as the most profitable company in the world. They do this by selling primarily to wealthy Western markets, prioritizing product and customer experience over affordability and utility.

In politics, we’d typically see small tents represented by evangelical, environmental, or more radical parties to the left or right of the spectrum. American Republicans are (relatively speaking) a small tent. They pursue a traditional voting base, a smaller coalition of rural, evangelical, and business interests that skews older and whiter than their Democratic counterparts while typically demonstrating high engagement at the polls.

What size tent is right for you?

Of course, everyone wants big and engaged audiences. Best of both worlds, right?

The problem is that we have limited resources. If we expand our messaging, we may end up diluting it. Suppose we tailor our messaging very carefully to reach one audience. In that case, it may not be effective at all for a secondary audience. For most businesses, we have to choose. Big tent or little?

The size of audience you choose to pursue has strategic ramifications. You should always play to your strengths.

If your team values personalized one-on-one communication with clients, you should shrink your tent. You’re probably good at closing leads when you have the resources to give them care and attention. Work on account-based marketing, schedule a high cadence of communication prospects, and lean into your strengths!

If your team is better suited to the volume play, that’s okay too. Focus on building a wide funnel, automating communication, and providing a deep pool of resources to nurture your broad base of prospects.

Like an election, you can win the marketing game either way. All it takes is a little strategy.

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