A Beginner’s Guide to Media Planning in the Digital Age

7 min. read

Lorna Keane / February 06, 2017

Strategic media planning is not what it once was. Not only is understanding consumer behaviors and attitudes now more of a challenge, the availability of data and the ability to apply complex analysis is transforming what’s possible.

The traditional approach of targeting audiences based on demographics and making a limited range of media placement decisions is long gone. In its place is a landscape where both the opportunities and challenges for the digital planner are far greater.

Research by Forrester reports that the typical marketer now juggles an average of five different technologies and nearly four vendors to buy digital media. This has led to a number of challenges that keep marketers and planners in the dark when it comes to effectively managing their digital strategy.

Throughout the briefing, planning and activation stages, effective communications management starts with a deeper understanding of your audience and their consumption habits. To uncover the best approaches, we rounded up insights from agency planners and marketers across sectors offering their two cents on where to begin. Here’s what they came up with…

1. Start With Questions

The two most important elements of a successful media planning programme are widely considered to be ‘reach’ and ‘frequency’. Despite the fast evolving landscape, these key factors are just as important as ever. Developing your target market is the first step to take, a process that can be relatively straight-forward or extremely complex depending on a client’s initial understanding of their audience. Every agency has a different approach to their research, but for the team at WeAreSocial, it starts with a few key questions:

“Typically speaking, when we embark on a project, we try to answer a few specific questions around four areas: the consumer, the brand, the category and the wider culture”, says Jamie Robinson, Global Research and Insight Director at WeAreSocial. “We might answer those questions through social listening, audience analysis, by buying a report, or by running a few focus groups.

Once we’ve answered those questions, we do what’s almost like a creative brainstorming session, looking at the things that stick together and the things that look different to try and create a social insight.

This is typically no more than two sentences that you can stick on the wall which helps describe the interpersonal truth that we want our idea to hook onto.”

2. ‘This Is Your Audience’

Once you’ve got a better knowledge of the market, industry and competition surrounding your audience, it’s about knowing who you’re speaking to. For marketers, instinct has always played a part when planning campaigns, but relying on educated assumptions to guide your strategy is no longer enough. Instead, it’s about immersing yourself in your market and your audience as much as possible.

Through practices like social listening and audience profiling, the tools to truly understand your audience through real insights are now readily available and necessary to get to grips with what your consumers want. Relying on data that quantifies their behaviors, habits, perceptions and interests, the media planning game has become a lot more strategic, while planners are gaining the confidence they need to take their ideas to the next level. For the team at Bell Pottinger, backing their ideas with reliable data is what makes all the difference.

“If you don’t have that initial ‘this is your audience’ info, you wind up making too many assumptions.

Using GlobalWebIndex for a recent client, for example, we realized their messaging was quite off-key, which they’d missed by making assumptions on their audience”, says Ben Sharma, PR Executive at Bell Pottinger.

3. Create Real-Life Personas

Successful media planning begins with knowing what’s important to your audience. With the right tools, planners can now access far greater insights into consumer behaviors, attitudes and affinities, making it easier than ever to develop real-life personas, and to personalize their messaging as much as possible. Audience profiling can help to take what you already know about your audience to another level by analyzing the perceptions and passions of those consumers at the heart of your marketing. For agencies like Southpaw, getting this level of understanding is essentially what drives the success of any campaign.

“The most interesting part of audience profiling data for me is the self-perceptions area, where you really start to understand how the consumer ticks and what’s important to them”, says Tom Primrose, Strategic Planner at Southpaw. “I can then create a pen portrait of the consumer which really helps me when briefing the creative; I can translate exactly who this person is, what their priorities are in life, their behaviors, their interests…

These are hugely important to understand, and central to the success of every campaign.”

4. Map Your Consumer Journeys

Once you’ve got a better understanding of your consumers, mapping their online journeys is the next step, and an essential part of the planning process. With internet users now leaving a trail of data-rich digital footprints everywhere they go, it’s more possible than ever to track the movements of your consumers, helping you to decide where and when to reach them, and to understand how they interact with your brand. Identifying the different touch points for every consumer and the ways they interact online can reveal the best ways of capturing their attention and tailoring your message to their needs. And with so many different types of customer journey maps out there, for agencies like Analog Folk, one simply isn’t enough.

“We have three or four different examples of consumer journeys we’ve made using GWI and other social listening tools… we love our maps!”, says Joe Portman, Junior Strategist at Analog Folk. “There is of course the consumer journey that maps the purchase journey, but there’s also the day-to-day of that consumer’s life which influences every part of that journey.

We need those insights to get an accurate picture of our consumer, mapping out key parts of their day, outlining emotions, behaviors and activites to give us inspiration on the kinds of messaging to create.”

5. Get the Right Media Mix

Our online consumption of content and engagement with brands has become a lot more fragmented in recent years. For this reason, planners are faced with the challenge of approaching media management in a more holistic way. While the power of broad reach is still being seen, your budget no longer defines your limits, as many innovative brands have proven through the use of in-house creative teams and innovative approaches to their marketing spend.

Taking paid, owned and earned media into account, an effective media mix relies on insights into consumer behavior for direction, engaging consumers across multiple channels and platforms with more targeted and tailored messaging. Based on the findings from your consumer journey mapping, start investing in the channels and strategies that you know will work best for your audience, relying not on mere assumptions, but reliable data that reflects real people.

6. Develop an Audience-Centric Plan

With the rise and rise of consumer power, internet users can now control the advertising they want to see, placing audience understanding squarely at the center of every effective media strategy. As the ad-blocking trend continues to grow, consumers are demanding less of the traditional ‘push’ messaging that once dominated their screen-time, and more of the tailored content that reflects their needs, interests and passions. Challenging the marketing world to take a more innovative approach, a successful media strategy now means developing an audience-centric plan that puts your consumers right at the core of everything you do; so the more you know about your audience, the better. For Michael Brenner, Best-Selling Author, Keynote Speaker and CEO of Marketing Insider Group, this has urged marketers to take one of two directions: “The single biggest challenge that marketers face is resisting the natural tendency to promote themselves. I think what we’re going to see in future are brands taking two very dichotomous paths; Some companies will continue down the path of blatant self-promotion using ineffective marketing techniques that are quite simply outdated, and then we’re going to see this new age of forward-thinking, consumer-centric companies.

These are the ones who realize that branding in a sense is dead, because any company can claim to be a leader in something, but very few can truly implement customer-centric cultures, and I think that starts with marketing.”

7. Take Calculated Risks

Measurement is one of the biggest challenges that media planners face today, despite the amount of data at their disposal. Campaigns can now be created, planned, measured and optimized in real-time, making them a lot more strategic and optimized for ROI, and removing the element of guesswork that traditionally dominated the entire process. For this reason, pressure is mounting for marketers to deliver more of what works in a more transparent way, backing their ideas with clear and actionable data.

But to really reap the benefits, planners need access to reliable data that drives deeper learning. By cutting through the noise with a core focus on the metrics that matter, continuously analyzing your results using both active and passive data to test new ideas, your chances of finding out what works are far greater. For Jayson DeMers, Founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, the key lies in taking calculated risks.

“Risks are absolutely necessary in marketing; you’ve got to take risks to see success, and you’ve got to be disciplined about testing and optimizing to ensure your risks are calculated.”

8. Stick to Your Strategy

For most media planners, under increasing pressure to meet their targets and deliver a return on investment, sticking to your strategy can become as great a challenge as its initial creation. As soon as the numbers fail to add up and the focus is placed squarely on conversions, it’s easy to veer off track and forget the bigger picture guiding your efforts. To ensure your planning remains specific to your overall business strategy, it’s important to remember that often the most successful strategies take time to make an impact. For Joe McCambley, SVP Content Marketing at POP, it all comes back to having the guts to stick to your goals.

“Crafting the strategy is definitely the biggest, hardest and ugliest task that marketers face, and then it’s the challenge of sticking to it. What often happens is you reach the third quarter and somebody hasn’t reached their numbers and it becomes all about conversions. You forget about the emotional storytelling at the top end of the funnel and the guidance in the curriculum and it’s like – we just need sales…

Great marketing relies on developing a great strategy, and then having the guts to stick to it.”

Need help mapping your consumer journey? Download your free infographic to uncover the five most important factors to consider at every stage.