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5 new online media-planning rules

5 new online media-planning rules Katelyn Watson

Know your customer. Have enough time scheduled to build a strong plan. Make sure your RFP uses customer insights. Test, test, test. And the list goes on.

Oh, the media buying rules. We have lived with them for the last 10 years, and we can now recite them in our sleep.

But online media buying hasn't remained stagnant. It has gone from a research-driven, results-laden, spreadsheet-pushing activity to a much more relationship-focused event. Yes, the research and performance numbers matter. Yes, there are spreadsheets involved. But it goes much deeper than that. How do you focus on what really drives the strongest media plans for the world we live in today (which happens to be the most fragmented media marketplace ever)?

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Working for all sides -- the agency, the big brand that uses an agency, and now the big brand that is the agency -- I have learned a thing or two about what works in media planning. And I know that whether you are in-house, at an agency, or at a brand that uses an agency, there are certain guidelines you can follow to get the most out of your media plans.

So without further ado, here are the new rules for media buying.

Old rule: Email an RFP to every publisher in your list and hope to get something good back.

New rule: Don't do RFPs.

Initially, the concept of the RFP made sense; it's the brief that tells the publisher what to think about. It is the document with all of the facts and figures around who to talk to and how we want customers to feel about the brand. It's great documentation, but that is all it is -- documentation.

I find a lot of brands have a set list of publishers, over time, that are in their black book. When it is time to "send out RFPs," they shoot it off to the whole gamut of publishers as a courtesy to those publishers. They think, "Maybe this time, finally, we might get something good back." The problem is that when you get back all of the spreadsheets and massive decks, you have to go through them, interpret them, and have a meeting with the publisher. None of the work is focused, and you just end up with a pile of mess and irrelevant proposals on which most publishers won't even get a call back.

Save your time and their sanity by taking a different approach. Once you have a set strategy internally and you know your goals and objectives, simply make a list of the publishers that are right to talk to for your objective. Keep it small. Use the RFP as a leave-behind or post-meeting follow-up only. Invite the publisher to come in and discuss your goals and objectives with your team what. You will be amazed how far talking gets you.

Take a week to meet with all of the prospective publishers and walk them through what you want to accomplish. Not only will the proposals be much more fruitful, but there will also be a lot less work for you -- and for them. They will take you much more seriously next time. Your internal constituents will be amazed at what you accomplished, all with the help of your publishers.

So the next time you think about firing off an RFP, think again, and talk to your partners.

Old rule: Plan media during the planning "cycle."

New rule: Think outside the planning cycle.

I have been guilty of it myself: A fantastic opportunity rears its head, and my response is "maybe next quarter."

We think in planning cycles, budget cycles, and quarterly forecasts. If you are a media planner, especially on the brand side, you will be amazed what happens when you take off the quarterly planning hat and put on the "planning always" hat. A lot of advertisers don't like to do this because we get so bogged down in the day to day. Even when you are out of budget or planned out for your cycle, you should at least have an open mind and ears if something comes up.

Talk to publishers about your seasonal initiatives, and even let them put together a proposal for you -- even if you have zero budget or are over a planning cycle. It not only educates you on what is out there, but it also puts you ahead of the game. How many times have you encountered incremental budget within a planning cycle or a fire drill of a new initiative? When you do, and you are always planning, there is no need to run around like crazy person to put something together. Just pull from what you have, with the caveat that you need to recheck inventory and pricing. Then you have not wasted time spinning on fire drills, and if the need is serious and comes to fruition, you can confidently contact your publisher without having to put it through planning fire drills either.

Do your work up front, and you will always be buttoned up when the need for a plan arises.

Old rule: Don't tell them anything more than what is in the RFP.

New rule: Transparency rules.

Let's face it: We can't give publisher partners access to all of our data and customer information, but there is a lot more that we can give them access to that will help ensure their success and yours. For example, are there seasonal day-by-day trends that are crucial to your business? You don't have to share actual numbers, but share the information around those trends.

With regard to any proprietary metrics or information that you have, it's usually not the proprietary part that the publisher needs anyway. Are there other activities in your business that might help them plan for more demand or higher performance? Or a product release that they should know about? Always think about how to help them -- not how to hide information from them.

With better information upfront, the publisher can generate better results if and when they become part of your team. Set up a weekly email or FTP site (or even a Shutterfly share site) where you send your publisher partners the latest news, product releases, and information. They like to hear it too, and it might give them some great ideas for your next media plan.

We all know that no one knows a brand's business as well as the brand. But by arming your partners with the right information, they can get close. You can also -- God forbid -- let publishers talk to each other and share notes. They are in it for the client, and there might be some great partnerships or efficiencies that you aren't thinking about.

Old rule: Keep the publishers siloed according to what they are known for.

New rule: Be inquisitive.

I used to only talk to the video network about video and the ad network about CPA campaigns. But then I realized the synergies you can get by thinking outside of what you think they are and asking bigger questions.

Ask your publishers questions you would not normally think of asking them. Ask a video network about an idea for a blogger promotion. Ask a gaming vendor for ideas on a product video. Ask a site more focused on branding what it can help you do on direct response. Partners are always open to solving problems, and if they can't solve the problem, they will surely help you get to the answer.

In a lot of cases, if your contacts are sales reps, they have probably worked at companies that do what you want their current companies to do. If they are not open to discussing it, then you might have a bigger problem on your hands. I have found that many partners have affiliations with companies that I would not have thought of. And when you put it all together, it makes for a winning plan.

Old rule: Test with caution only if you have seen previous case studies.

New rule: Try it first.

Just because a partner has not done something before does not mean you should be scared to try it. Sometimes you will find that you have discovered a new winning tactic for your brand; in turn, the publisher has discovered a new product it can market. Since this is a win-win for both sides, you can negotiate pricing based on being a first mover or beta partner. Just because it isn't written in a rate card somewhere doesn't mean that it can't be done.

If you are working with smart and strategic sales reps on the publisher side, they will always be coming up with innovative ideas and then taking them back to their teams to tackle if they sound interesting to the brand. These types of tests could be a great complement to the rest of your media plan and keep your brand on the side of innovation that nobody can beat.

In conclusion, think outside of the spreadsheets and planning cycles and push your agencies, publishers, and media planners to think outside of the typical planning mold. It will make for winning media plans, partner relationships -- and less work for everyone in the long term.

I know I have probably pissed off a media planners or two with this post -- and my phone is going to start ringing off the hook with publishers. But at least I'll have a solid media plan that nobody can touch.

Katelyn Watson is online marketing manager at Shutterfly.

On Twitter? Follow Watson at @katelynwatson. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

I have been in digital marketing for over 12 years, got my feet wet on the agency side, moved to the client side early on where the big decisions were made and never looked back. I specialize in multi-channel marketing strategy for large brands and...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Jay Friedman

2011, April 29

Katelyn - this should be required reading for every buyer/planner as they come into this industry. The "old" ways of thinking ultimately just harm agency clients - who are paying everyone's bills in the first place!

Commenter: Katelyn Watson

2011, April 28

Lynn, I agree with you, with an open mind a lot can be accomplished. Unfortunatley with the day to day roll, it doesn't happen that way. You sound like you are on board with the approach. Call it the "common sense" approach:)

Commenter: Lynn Lekander

2011, April 25

I don't do a great deal of online, at least not as much as I'd like, BUT your online media planning rules seem like alot of common sense. I always believe that, if given the opportunity, new partnerships can be developed and you never know what might come out of a conversation. Great Post!