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.
Buying and maintenance process
Media planning is, among other things, an exercise in determining what to buy. What you decide to buy can contribute to mitigating the downside risk of unforeseen change that is inherent to an evolving media environment. How one buys and how one manages a buy once executed can also help to moderate the effects of an unknown media future.
Manage the future by controlling the present
It's hard to know what's going to happen six months from now, so why not deal in shorter increments of time? If you're not sure how to keep your media plan consistent, relevant, and executable for a long-term campaign, then stop trying. Issue short-term IOs. It's true that nobody likes this, and some publishers might not even allow it. Short-term IOs create a lot more busy work on everyone's part, and it makes cash flow management more complicated. But back in the very old days of online media buying -- like, back in the '90s -- it was very common to issue 30-day IOs. Sure, some pricing advantages may be lost. The big and splashy creative placements aren't going to be on the table, but it's easier to control time if you break it up in smaller parts. The best of both worlds might be a compromise like issuing contracts by the quarter. Longer commitment might get you more advantageous pricing and allow you to take advantage of some of the cooler, long-term commitment-type ad placements without locking you in for a year. If the client can be convinced that not locking in spending over the long haul is a sound buying strategy, and the client can be made comfortable with not being able to "see" its media plan six months or a year out, short term buys are the way to go.
Be liberal with the IAB 3.0 cancellation clause
Don't be afraid to use the cancellation clause in an IO. If you see changes in the media environment that either make you uncomfortable with where you've already decided to place your money -- or the changes you see have made you decide there is a better place to put your message -- and you don't have the resources for both, flip the switch on the 14-day notice of cancellation. Nobody likes this, but it truly is a clause that provides for built-in scheduling flexibility.
Non-specific, unassigned budget use
Back in the old days (before online, when I was doing traditional media) some of my bigger clients would hold marketing dollars in reserve. We would have a media "contingency" budget. This money was committed to being spent, but it was not assigned to anything specific. The cash was to be made available for opportunistic media buys including something new, additional allocation to tactics that were doing well, or a last-minute effort. Try working this out for digital.
Another thing to try -- though clients seldom like this -- is to simply secure a lump budget to use at your discretion. Of course, you'd have to disclose to your client what you wanted to buy and offer your recommendations, but the horizon on specifics and commitments is kept short. If you aren't tied down, it's easy to move react to change.
The philosophical inquiry
So you've asked yourself, "How does one plan a long-term digital media campaign in the face of constant change?" Perhaps a bigger question to ask is, "Should long-term digital media campaigns should be planned at all? Is the concept of a campaign out of date -- dead?"
A year ago, Eric Wheeler, the CEO and co-founder of 33Across, published an article in Ad Age that declared ad campaigns as we used to understand them to be dead. It heated the blood of quite a few people -- more than 1,700 people shared the article via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even Google+. To sum up his point, he explained that in an era of social media and consumer control, advertisers no longer own their own messages and so the notion of a consistent campaign not longer holds.
I disagree with his premise that because more consumers can exercise greater control over their media environment -- and an advertiser's message -- advertising campaigns are dead. Intelligent and artful brand representation to the marketplace that is consistent over time will always be valuable. Also, depending on the product or service of the brand, seasonality may well play a role. But Wheeler's "campaigns are dead" concept does hold up in the context of long-term media plan scheduling. Strip away competitive reasons for media scheduling (keeping the competitor off the inventory), potential price advantages (of which there are few -- particularly online), and availability (scarce in-context inventory vs. plentiful run-of-site or network), and there really isn't a reason for long-term media planning and buying, except for maybe labor efficiency.
Any of the approaches outlined in this article can be used to plan and buy the digital media you will want, when you want it, all the while avoiding the pitfalls of a rapidly changing marketplace.
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