Oscar Wilde once wrote in an article for "Women's World" that fashion "is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."
The digital media landscape is something that changes nearly as often, if not even more frequently -- though for reasons that are mostly other than its ugliness.
How does one put together a long-term digital media plan that is consistent and relevant in the face of constant change? Or for that matter, even executable? Should agencies even put together long-range media campaigns for online?
There are several answers to the questions above. The answers lie in the planning process itself, the maintenance process, and -- most importantly -- a fundamental philosophical investigation into the nature of modern media planning.
The planning process is really where you are going to have the most diverse responses to the inquiry of how one plans for an ever-changing digital media landscape. For the sake of our discussion here, the focus will be strictly on digital media and not on social tactics.
To ensure stability in your media plan in the face of instability in the digital media marketplace, use only those media vehicles that show up consistently in metered research (e.g., comScore or @plan). I've worked with agencies that have a policy of only working with sites or networks that show up in the research and rank in the top 250 to 500 properties. By and large, this can guard against major shifts in the marketplace that could adversely affect a media plan, though it can lead to overlooking hidden media vehicle gems. However, while there is nothing to be done about changes in editorial format or ad product, that kind of change is nothing to worry about. If a site in the comScore top 250 launches something new and you are doing business with it, I guarantee you'll hear about it.
Go big or go home
If you spend a great deal of your client's money on just a few sites, and you've worked with those sites on keen creative integration and high-impact customization, the only thing you need to worry about is how to keep your production and creative people from killing you. So, how does this figure into the changing media landscape? As a life-long fan of horror movies -- spurred by my mom who took us kids to see just about every slash-and-spatter release of the late '70s and early '80s at the drive-in -- I developed an approach to keep from being afraid: Pretend you are the monster, the ghost, the demon, the killer. When you are the one instigating the change, you have nothing to fear. The change that is happening is your change. Yes, you need to have some decent budgets, but, more importantly, you need a client that is going to support a creative and experimental approach.
This is really just another way of saying "use DSPs and DMPs." I know we don't like to talk much anymore about these kinds of tools -- in spite of their ubiquity -- because the sexiness has worn off. It's kind of like the girl you met at the bar who, 20 years later, is now knee deep in dirty laundry with a cigarette dangling from her lips. But you married her for a reason: She's smart, she knows you better than you know yourself, and she gets the job done. That's a DSP if you've been using the same one for a while. This is basically at the other end of the spectrum from go big or go home, yet the hedge against change in the landscape is the same -- your programmatic buying tools are the change. Again, being the change means you have nothing to fear.
Zero-based media planning
This is what we like to do at Media Darwin. Zero-based media planning assumes that the product being advertised has never been advertised before. It is a process that takes nothing for granted and proceeds from a point where nothing is known (i.e., a zero point). The reason for this is to avoid all of the prejudices that come from historical assurances that can give the marketer an image of a world that may not actually exist, skewing your strategy toward addressing audiences (and the circumstances in which those audiences find themselves) in ways that may no longer suit reality.
In today's environment, change is not only the one true constant -- it also happens faster than it used to. In order to keep abreast of the world we are marketing in, it is necessary to keep checking in on that world. Media strategy and planning should be a process by which you fill that empty space with ever smaller concentric circles of specificity.
This idea is best illustrated in the address of a letter mentioned in Thorton Wilder's play "Our Town." The address read:
"Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God."
In the media world, think of this address written in reverse. Once you've established a blank slate, it is time to start putting things back onto it as you fill each of those circles. As a planner, the act of filling in all the blank space you've just created forces you to look for tactical solutions. The solutions you find are going to be new and representative of whatever changes are taking place in the media environment.
Go through as much syndicated research on the category of product or service that is available, see where it intersects with media usage, and start putting your plan together from there.
Yes, any research is inherently backwards looking, but if you treat every planning assignment like the first of its kind for the brand you're working with, you'll wind up using the latest available research. This will bring you closer in alignment to any changes that have taken place than would be the case if you relied on your own established media planning biases.
Doing this also gives you the chance to get a fresh look at the data and perhaps see something new.