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6 stupid media planning mistakes

6 stupid media planning mistakes Jim Meskauskas

Media planning used to be a discipline learned over a long period of time. It was taught at the big agencies with manuals constructed from mimeographs collected over years, passed down from media director or associate media director to planner, and then passed from that planner -- once he or she became an AMD -- to the next generation of planner.

The authority of media planning was rigorous and exacting, carried out with monastic dedication, weighted with a sense of certainty and rectitude that was something between science and religion.

Today, media planning, particularly as it is applied to online, is practiced with more of a sense of certainty borne of support by research and technology, and less a sense of rectitude. Plans are put together in a frenzy, @Plan or comScore runs sorted sites loaded into the ad server's media planning console, and negotiations are handled impersonally, virtually, and post haste. Technology rules the day. And because it seems to make everything move faster online -- and it actually does -- everything is subject to time compression, and clients regularly require short turn-arounds on all their planning. It means that the modern online media planner is exposed to the kind of pressures that would make a diamond blush.

It also means that mistakes get made. I don't mean the kinds of mistakes that find their way into a spreadsheet, such as miswritten formulas, adding a column and missing a cell, misspelling a client's name. These are all common -- though hopefully infrequent -- mistakes that typically get caught in the process of the media buy's manufacture, but sometimes aren't caught until the presentation to the client.

Rather, I'm talking about mistakes that are more fundamental -- mistakes that are there from the start, sewn into the lineaments of a media plan. I'm talking about mistakes that are the result of a changing definition of intelligence and a fading respect for deliberation, and a growing admiration for sudden decision-making. These are mistakes that doom a plan from the start, or at least render it sterile and ineffectual, or, if not that, make it a complete waste of time and money.

Seeing as how time and money are the two most valuable assets a business has, these types of mistakes are the ones that matter most. Following are six such blunders that media planners make during the planning process. These can work their way into the fabric of a media plan and mar the outcome of the whole tapestry.

Accountability has become a given in terms of what advertisers expect from media. But plenty of advertising continues to be planned and placed without much, if any, thought about how to know if it is accomplishing its ultimate goal -- namely, moving product.

The touch points of an advertiser's media must be identified as data. Who audiences are and what they do, as well as where advertising goes and what audiences do when they encounter it, need to be made machine-readable. While doing this casts much of human affairs and daily life experiences into the hard, institutional light of fluorescence, it does bring the marketer closer to the audience and allow a better grasp on what it is about advertising that sells product and what about it does not.

This means that before getting started with a medium, you must first articulate what that medium is supposed to do, and for whom it is supposed to do it. You need to articulate:

  1. What is the product or service?

  2. What is the audience?

    1. What about the audience do I want to know? What about the audience do I think I already know?
      i. Demographic
      ii. Psychographic

  3. What do I want the audience to do when it encounters my advertisement?

  4. What do I want the audience members to do when they get to my website (if I want them to come to my website)?

  5. What kind of value can be assigned to the people in the audience I reach -- and to their corresponding data points? 

Now, I'm not suggesting that the whole of advertising's task is only to accomplish selling at the expense of all else, but it's the ultimate goal, direct or indirect.

This sounds laborious. And it sounds like a lot standing in the way of getting a media plan off the ground. But trust me when I say that if you don't go through at least some of this before your planning (or concurrent with it), you won't learn what you wanted to know because you didn't articulate what it was that you wanted to learn, and you did not adequately prepare for the collection of the kind of data that will help you to learn it. Spending the time upfront will save you from wasting your money later.

Online media has been a two-way conversation from the beginning. The directness with which those conversations have improved over time and the means by which contact can be made have multiplied.

Many of us expect people to be available via BlackBerry, cell phone, home phone, and email. The companies that expect to have relationships with us should be, too.

When putting together a media or marketing plan, be sure you've enabled the audience speak and that you are equipped to hear. But also differentiate your placements accordingly. Some should be for talking, others for listening. Not all media vehicles or the environments within them are suited for each -- some are suited for both. For example, search or a resource tool is for talking; social networking sites are a great place for listening; a blog can be good for both. But the creative brought to bear will tease out which can be used for what. Few media plans are so huge that you can't determine which is which in time for a plan's launch.

Some products and services simply don't lend themselves to conversation, though every one of them should give it a go. But sometimes there isn't anything to say. While there could be a great deal to say about Staples as a resource, there probably isn't a lot to say about binder clips. And sometimes a comment doesn't always need a response. Like any conversation, knowing when to keep quiet is just as important as knowing what to say.

Today's media planner is surrounded on all sides by technology, technological advances, the hopes of technological advancement, and ceaseless professional blathering about better work, work product, and the life it leads to through technology.

The problem with working in a field reliant, in large part, on technology to make it go? The field itself is not one of technology. Media, marketing, advertising -- these are not technological endeavors. They are driven by and improved by technology, but they are not themselves technological. They are psychological, behavioral, and ultimately human goings-on.

Behavioral targeting can do some great things. And I truly believe it should be among the consideration set of tactics, if not a standard part of every media plan. But it is not what is going to win or lose the day for a media plan. Widgets and apps are cool. I find many to be fun and terribly useful. (Nationwide Insurance has perhaps one of the most useful I've seen -- and it's using mass media to promote it.) But behavioral is a targeting tactic used to extract more value from media; an application is a pull-tactic to elicit brand engagement. Neither of these are a media strategy.

The same can be said for tools that amass and process data. It's too easy for a media planner to miss the media opportunities that best suit a client because a particular vehicle's representation does not communicate with the agency through its third-party ad server's media console, where RFPs are collected.

Another example is creating your own audience ad network using data gathered from myriad websites to find prospects in "cheaper" locations. Yes, you can find less expensive media, but you bypass the consultative sales process and avoid interaction with a category or content specialist that might be able to bring you a media opportunity that goes far beyond simply achieving a CPM goal or a data point that might indicate proclivity to action. The client may miss the opportunity to develop a much deeper connection with a potential customer if all its planners are looking at is cost of media at an intersect with a calculated right time and place for interaction. Choosing the right time and place is only a necessary condition for a relationship to begin -- it is far from sufficient.

Many behaviors can be rendered as machine-readable data to be plugged into algorithms, but human motive remains simple, mysterious, and ultimately unpredictable. Love or money may be frequent motives for behavior, but it is not always easy to predict which one might instigate a behavior that might elicit the same results. 

A planner needs to see social networking as both a tactic and a strategy, and they need to know the difference between the two. Our industry is to blame for the ease with which the two can be confused. We are a business obsessed with finding the next eponym. Google, iPod, Facebook, and Twitter are all names of companies that provide services or enable action where that service or action has become named after the provider (e.g., "to Google").

Media planners can fall into the trap of thinking that only a particular vehicle represents the strategy of social networking because of how closely one is associated with the other. This can lead to overlooking, or forsaking entirely, different ways to enter communities. Consider Lotame and SocialVibe. Neither of them is, in and of themselves, a "social networking" property. Rather, they provide social network entry opportunities for advertisers.

Skittles.com's relaunch of its website a couple months back turned the homepage into giant virtual megaphone broadcasting any mention of the Skittle brand taking place over the web or through Twitter. By day two, it had turned into a Skittles complaint free-for-all, and the Twitter feed was disconnected from the page. This is an example of mistaking social media tactics for a social media strategy.

I've heard Peter Shankman, founder and CEO of the Geekfactory and Help a Reporter Out, put it this way: "There's Twitter, then there's Twittering. Two separate things. Twittering will survive. Twitter? Not sure." The distinction is important, and helps to demonstrate the difference between tactic and strategy.

It was a great meeting. The client clearly articulated its objectives. The agency had terrific ideas for how to communicate the brand and where that communication could best serve the message and its audience.

But then the media planning doesn't focus on any of it. The target is cross-tabbed against product category usage, and that's as far as it goes. RFPs go out to sites that show up on a run, and the only feature is total budget and CPM goals.

The end result is a plan that has no real connection to strategy and creative that doesn't ultimately sell the product.

As Greg March, GMD at Weiden + Kennedy, says, "You can have really creative, engaging, innovative ideas that are not creatively connected to your strategy. They don't sell things. You have to be all of those things plus tied into a good strategy based on research, product, and target, etc."

A lot of media planners get unduly focused on the CPMs of their plan. They are not to blame for this. Clients increasingly feature downward cost pressure as their goal when buying media, even if the primary goal is to communicate a value proposition and capture market share.

The reason a near obsession with price takes center stage in media planning is because it appeals to one of the two personalities the media planner is required to have: planning and buying. But only one can be dominant.

Unlike broadcast media, online, like print, is typically planned and then purchased by the same person. That means that a strategic, deliberate temperament needed for planning is followed by the direct, hasty, and often brash disposition of the negotiator. While clients certainly love good ideas and strategic thinking, those are less tangible and frequently go unrewarded. When a client gives you little time to put together a plan, and cost-cutting is its most frequently mentioned desire, the negotiating personality is going to come forward, taking over the process from the planning personality. Sure, there are those who can comfortably be both -- but given the realities of the time and space pressures in which the media planner must work, only the shrewd negotiator thrives.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing in all instances. But it can lead to the sacrifice of careful and considered media planning. It satisfies a short-term goal at the risk of neglecting a long-term one -- namely, the most effective media plan that can lead to building deeper relationships between a customer and a brand. In fact, the buying-centric approach doesn't take the brand into account at all. Instead of the planner getting good at solving the mystery of how to affect the client's business, he or she grows adept at quickly putting together the pieces of a media plan puzzle. These are not the same things.

Media strategies editor Jim Meskauskas is vice president and director of online media for ICON International Inc., an Omnicom company.

On Twitter? Follow Meskauskas at @mediadarwin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Jim Meskauskas is a Partner and Co-Founder of Media Darwin, Inc., providing comprehensive media strategy and planning.  Prior to that, Jim was the SVP of Online Media at ICON International, an Omnicom Company, where he spent nearly five years.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Ekaterina Tsvetkova

2009, June 24

Great point about accountability, Jim! Here is what Association of National Advertising (ANA) has to say about it: http://www.buysafemedia.com/index.php?mode=blog&blog=14

Commenter: Deborah Schule

2009, June 17

Jim - bravo on so appropriately pegging the common mistakes. Having never worked for a large agency, and always performing the planning and buying functions myself, (or with the help of assistants), I have uniquely and acutely been aware of the pitfalls that many in media are guilty of. Call me 'old school', technology is great but 'media by instinct' plays an important role, too.