A roadmap to a better media buy

(by Richard Frankel)

In the new display media environment of 2010, media buyers have literally thousands of options when it comes to ad network and website buys. How can buyers approach this in a way that is smart and delivers good value for clients? We’ve seen simple mistakes based on the “bigger is better” fallacy — that a plan with 30 media buys is better than a plan with just three. The core problem with these super-complicated plans is that they trade comprehensibility, quality, and results for bulk; it’s going to be a whole lot of work for underwhelming results.

Instead of size, the perfect digital media plan should focus on four core features:

  • Reach — lots of people who are good targets for your message
  • Knowable results — every plan should incorporate tools and measures that will help you know if you’ve achieved the outcomes you want
  • Relevant content — sites that provide strong support for a message, brand, or product
  • Integration — make your message a part of the consumer story

Each focus has a place in a media plan and must be part of the overall strategy. A really great media plan balances all of these things. Here’s how they can all be integrated into the perfect media plan.

Most media plans are built backwards from an initial conception of cool sites or integrations that attract your attention. While the right content and integrations are crucial, the first steps should always be audience and success metrics: How are you going to find the right audiences, and how do you know you’re winning?

Targeted reach is where buyers make the biggest mistake on the web, as it’s far too easy to include multiple sources that merely duplicate reach. Having five or 10 partners overlapping in targeted reach makes the buy inefficient. You should work with only one exchange-based network partner. For every partner you add that is running in the same inventory space, you are making everyone — especially your client — inefficient. As exchanges become more common, mass reach will become a commonplace.

Achieving and measuring reach is not simply a numbers game. The quality of the reach matters equally. Factors such as audience data, context, time of day, and publisher brand have to be taken into account. This is a new way of thinking, and the changing landscape of display advertising requires a different formula for taking into account the quality of reach. Look for technology to navigate these waters, as no amount of human planning can make manageable the mass of data, inventory, and audience options.

Understanding your audience and having an efficient way to reach them en masse is a great first step. But pursuing knowable, useful metrics is the crucial next stage. We in media must be bold in this area; we all have to leave behind CTR (except for those rare cases in which site activity is a valuable end) and find metrics that are knowable, trackable, and usable. This is utterly possible. Sure, DR marketers have it easy, but brand marketers now have the tools to turn awareness, consideration, or purchase intent into digital metrics that can power campaigns too.

Now that you’ve got reach and the right metric, let’s find the right complementary content and integration opportunities. Traditional media planning tools can help you find relevant vertical content. Companies like AOL, Yahoo, and MySpace have the tools and flexibility to provide integration products that can scale for larger budgets. But your content and integration partners should be measured the same way you measure any aspect of a campaign.

How do you know if you are buying digital media the right way? Some simple questions that can help identify early warning signs of media that might not be optimal for your campaign include:

How many pixels are on the landing page?

While the pixels themselves don’t affect performance for your landing page, lots of pixels (more than three or four) are a clue that you have too many partners that are competing with each other. As media availability consolidates, fewer competing partners will increase overall campaign efficiency.

What is the conversion rate drop-off for partners?

If your partners are seeing many more conversions than you’re giving them credit for, this is another clue that you have an inefficient plan incorporating too many similar competitors.

Am I getting transparency with what’s working?

Black-box solutions are fine, but your most successful partners should be sharing information about what is working and why. Everyone should be learning together; true partnerships build on open information and developing ongoing success together.

Am I manually optimizing by moving inventory among partner sites? (i.e., Are you sitting in front of spreadsheets at midnight wondering what to do?)

Site-based optimization is rapidly becoming a differentiator with up-and-coming media technology companies. Site optimization should be something that you are getting help with, rather than doing it manually yourself.

Can I to put more money to work? Can things scale up?

It’s a warning sign if your partner isn’t able to scale.

Media buyers and planners have ample opportunity for innovation for their perfect media plan. There are risks to taking innovation head on — there will be failures. Nevertheless, media buyers should not give up on experimentation. They should just do it in smart and measured ways, taking into account the reach, the budget, and the goal of the campaign. The marketers and agencies that turn digital media into powerhouse marketing tools will be the winners in the next generation.