You’ve probably heard it before: “The medium is the message.” But who said it? Why does it matter in the world of media planning? The declaration comes from Chapter 1 of Canadian communications scientist Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan helped illuminate the power of language, images, and the mode of message delivery to influence human thought and behavior.
Marketers and professional communicators must know how to harness that power to deliver messages to the right people. No matter the nature of the message, it must be conveyed via some form of media.
And to make sure the message reaches the right people at the right time, marketers and communicators must understand media planning, which determines what, when, and how often messages are delivered in traditional forms (print, broadcast, outdoor ads, etc.) or digital forms.
The financial stakes are high in the digital advertising industry. According to research from the Winterberry Group, online media spending reached $145.3 billion in 2019, with investments increasing 19.1% over 2018. The highest growth categories included digital video, digital audio (podcasts and music streaming), and paid social ads.
Another report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reflects that online media spending has surpassed TV, radio, magazine, and newspaper ad spending, all of which are experiencing flat or declining sales. Spending on mobile ads is expected to increase from 70% to 81% of online ad sales between 2019 and 2023.
Media planners are responsible for making sure those billions of advertising dollars are not wasted. They must understand every aspect of media planning to support a messaging strategy that delivers the desired results.
It begins with understanding the definition of media planning, as well as its components, the types and purposes of different media platforms, and the factors that make up a media plan.
What Is Media Planning?
Media planning is the process of determining how, when, and to what audience a branding or advertising message will be delivered. A media planner analyzes how a message is intended to support a marketing or advertising strategy and then develops tactics to share that message in the right places with the right people.
At an advertising or marketing agency, the duties of a media planner might be assigned to a content director, marketing manager, account manager, or combination of people with knowledge of media, budgeting, content creation, and other areas of expertise related to marketing.
No matter who is responsible for development, the process requires a deep understanding of the components of a media plan, the platforms that can deliver the message, and the factors that go into an effective plan.
The Components of Media Planning
Before developing a plan, the media planner must fill in the blanks on specific components. Trying to make a media plan without first understanding its components would be like riding a bicycle blindfolded.
The component checklist serves as a foundation for the plan and should take into account:
- Audience: Whom is the message targeting? Why is the message relevant to them? How is the message serving them?
- Marketing budget: How much is available to spend on delivering the message?
- Conversion goals: What action should the message encourage the audience to take? How will that action support the strategy?
- Definition of success: What key performance indicators should be tracked? How do they support the strategy? How will they be measured and reported? What is the anticipated return on investment?
- Message frequency: How often should the message be shared? How much is too much?
- Message reach: How many people should receive the message? Where do they live? Is the message platform scalable? How reach is measured depends on the platform being used to deliver the message. It is important for media planners to understand the nature, uses, and usefulness of every available form of media.
The Forms of Media
Marketing and advertising content takes the form that best conveys the message and achieves the desired action on the part of the consumer. Digital media includes all the assets a consumer finds on the internet: paid ads on search engines (pay per click), banner ads associated with targeted remarketing, videos and static ads on social media, website development, and more.
In 2019, for the first time, digital advertising spending surpassed traditional advertising spending. According to digital marketing publication eMarketer, digital marketing spend was estimated to account for 54.2% of total U.S. advertising spending in 2019.
In traditional and digital media, efforts to spread messaging can be categorized as:
- Owned media: Owned media consists of original assets, such as blog posts and videos, published directly on platforms owned and operated by the organization attempting to spread the message. The ultimate goal of owned media assets is to go viral — a nice-to-have but unpredictable state that should never be considered the linchpin of any media plan.
- Earned media: Earned media are assets that share the organization’s message but are created by separate parties, such as news stories or profiles in a newspaper or online news site. This typically is a function of public relations or media relations.
- Paid media: These are assets associated with ad spending, such as social media advertisements, paid search ads, paid commercials on TV or radio, or the paid placement of an asset such as a guest blog post on a news website.
No type of media can be dismissed as unimportant. The type of media used could make or break a campaign, which is just one of several factors that determine a media plan’s potential effectiveness.
The Factors of Effective Media Planning
The three pillars of an effective media plan — purpose, audience, and reach — are interconnected but must be considered separately during the early stages of plan formation. Here is an overview of the factors of effective media planning.
- Purpose: What is the goal or objective of the campaign? Is it to generate brand awareness? Encourage a user to share contact information or to fill out a form? How does the asset support the larger marketing strategy? All of these questions must be answered very early in the planning process.
- Audience: Who is the targeted consumer? Who will benefit from watching, listening, or reading the piece of content? Who is likely to buy the service or product or to develop a long-term relationship with the brand? The purpose and the audience go hand in hand.
- Reach: How many people are targeted by a particular media platform, and at what frequency? Reach and frequency — the number of times a potential customer is offered the chance to read, watch, or listen to the asset — are related. Not every potential audience member consumes media at the same rate. The more often a video or ad is shared, the more likely it is to be seen.
Once the three pillars have been identified, a media planner can flesh out the plan to develop a larger strategy and supporting tactics.
Media Planning Strategies
Exploring media planning strategies can help marketers effectively choose the right media platforms for spreading a message to a relevant audience.
What follows is an overview of some of the primary considerations that must be addressed when preparing to develop a media plan.
1. Selecting Relevant Media Channel(s)
Media planners have choices when it comes to the channel or channels they select for sharing a piece of content. Channels are platforms, digital or traditional, that serve content to users.
Traditional channels are TV, radio, and print ads. Digital channels are social media, websites, email, and other online platforms.
The channel chosen should be a platform the target audience is likely to frequent. Channels appeal to users based on age, gender, socioeconomic status, and other demographic factors.
For example, a business-to-business (B2B) audience would be more likely to be reached on LinkedIn, where businesses and employees interact on a professional level. On the other hand, a business-to-consumer (B2C) audience might be found on a channel such as YouTube or Instagram.
2. Determining the Relevant Timeline
What determines the timeline of a media campaign? It depends on the product/service, message goals, audience, and calendar of events.
To establish the media campaign timeline, a project plan is necessary to determine what assets are necessary to support the campaign. When determining resource requirements, it can be helpful to start at the end. When is the optimal publish date (or dates)? With that in mind, the planner is free to plot the work necessary to get it done.
Every aspect of the plan must be given the right amount of time for development. For example, if the planner knows a great deal of market research will be required, multiple days should be devoted to that part of the plan.
Every stakeholder’s role must be taken into account and factored into the deadlines associated with each stage. Communication is key. Every person involved in the execution of the plan should have a means to communicate setbacks or ask relevant questions along the way.
3. Coordinating the Channel Mix
Rarely will a media plan include only one channel. Most campaigns will incorporate at least two — and possibly several more — to ensure that as many people as possible are served the content. But companies need to make sure that the message is cohesive across all channels.
When used wisely, channels can be complementary. For example, a long-form profile of a subject can be coupled with a short-form video that features an interview with the subject. The video and long-form article might be packaged together on a blog post, or they could be served up separately on different social media platforms to increase reach.
The concept is particularly true for social media channels. If a message is relevant to multiple audiences, it is important to distribute that message on platforms those audiences frequent. For example, a smartphone app with wide appeal might be advertised on a platform such as TikTok to reach younger audiences and on LinkedIn to appeal to business-minded professionals. Marketing teams should consider the timing and tone of these ads to avoid conflicting messages across platforms.
How to Choose a Digital Channel: Additional Resources
- Digital Marketing Institute, “How to Choose the Best Social Media Channels for Your Business”
- Magazine, “Digital Marketing Channels Are Not All Equal”
4. Leveraging Audience Targeting
Audience targeting is the process of determining who to share a message with and how to find them. Most marketers begin the audience targeting process by developing buyer personas, or fictionalized versions of the people they hope to reach. Once a company develops its target personas, they can better choose the right marketing platform to reach the intended audience.
Personas are derived from data such as age, gender, profession, buying habits, hobbies, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and personal or professional goals. This data can be compiled using a template that incorporates original research into a current customer base or gathered using tools such as Google Analytics.
An important element of persona development is determining what media platforms are frequented by the real people the persona represents. Services such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter offer audience segmentation tools that break down the demographic information of their users to target users accurately.
Social Media Ad Audience Segmentation Resources
- Facebook’s Ad Targeting Tutorial
- Google’s Audience Targeting Q&A
- LinkedIn’s Ad Targeting Instructions
- Twitter’s Ad Targeting Instructions
5. Setting Reach and Frequency Goals
Another important consideration in a media plan is the reach, which is closely related to frequency. As mentioned above, reach is a measurement of the number of viewers, readers, or listeners who are served the content. Frequency, also known as impressions, is the number of times they are likely to see or hear the piece of content over a set period of time. Marketers must decide what they hope to accomplish with reach and frequency when considering media plan options.
Reach and frequency typically are a function of spending money to amplify the message. Occasionally, a piece of content might go “viral” organically, without an associated ad buy to support it. But those occasions are rare, so a media plan must take into account the amount of money required to put the content in front of the right number of people.
Advertising dollars are devoted to social media platforms, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, based on an estimated number of users who will be served the content. The benefit of that kind of advertising, as opposed to traditional media such as an outdoor billboard or a magazine ad, is that the social media platforms allow marketers to target specific users with their advertising.
6. Choosing a Voice
The “voice” of a piece of content is the tone used to convey the message. It is determined in written assets by factors such as word choice and sentence length. In visual media, the use of color and shapes conveys “voice.”
The voice of a piece of content is important because people respond to authentic messaging. Consumers are savvy — they know when someone is trying to sell them something. The visceral response is to reject messaging that looks or sounds inauthentic or irrelevant.
How is authentic voice derived? It begins with the development of personas, as mentioned above. An important element of persona creation is determining factors such as education level, profession, and personal interests. Different segments of the population have their own vernacular, and marketers who capture that in a pitch-perfect voice are more likely to achieve success with their media plans.
Understanding the Difference Between Reach and Frequency: Additional Resources
- Sprout Social, “Reach vs. Impressions: What’s the Difference in Terms?”
- HubSpot, “Integrated Media Planning: What It Is and How to Adopt It in Your Marketing Strategy”
- HubSpot: “Audience Targeting: What It Is and Why You Need It”
Steps to Developing a Media Plan
A sound media plan ensures that the content has the best chance to effectively perform the function for which it was created. Without a well-conceived media plan, the marketing team is operating without a rudder. Success, if it comes, is a matter of luck rather than precise execution.
After evaluating the best media planning strategies, marketers need to establish the right plan for their business. Below is an overview of the steps to developing a media plan, starting with researching the market.
1. Conduct Market Research
Before a goal can be set, an editorial calendar can be developed, or a piece of content can be created, the marketing team needs to know a few things about the people they hope will consume or purchase their product or service. That requires market research, which is the first step in making a media plan.
Market research reveals the characteristics of buyer personas, such as age and other demographics. It provides information about buying habits and personal preferences. It tells the content creators what voice to use, what platforms potential customers frequent, and what type of content will resonate with users.
In short, market research is the backbone of the plan. It should be conducted thoroughly and updated regularly based on testing data and customer feedback.
2. Clarify the Objective
It is virtually impossible to create a successful marketing asset — an ad, blog post, video, static image, etc. — without first establishing why the asset is necessary. The objective will by necessity shape every aspect of the content.
What goals can a piece of content help the marketing team achieve?
- Brand awareness and loyalty: Tell or show a user what the company and its people are all about.
- Thought leadership: Show or tell a user why the organization and its people are experts in the field.
- Information: Give users data or history they can use in their professional or personal lives.
- Lead generation: Build the pool of potential customers by demonstrating how a product or service could be of use.
- Lead conversion: Provide a means for a potential customer to actively seek more information or create an ongoing connection with the organization.
Establishing the goal or goals ahead of time enables content creators to fashion their work with purpose and direction. It streamlines the creative process and reduces the amount of time necessary for revisions. Time spent early on figuring out the endgame is time saved along the way.
3. Identify the Target Audience
According to HubSpot, audience targeting is “the method of separating consumers into segments based on interests and demographic data.” Characteristics of segments might be age, income, interests, gender, geographic location, and buying habits.
The main purpose of segmenting is to ensure that the right people are receiving the message. The “right people” are those who are likely to consume the product or service on offer.
Here are a few tips for effective audience targeting:
- Mine the analytics. Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms provide deep dives into consumer data such as geographic location, websites visited, and personal and professional interests. Mine these sources for information to learn more about consumers who already are engaged with the organization.
- Conduct focus groups and surveys. Invite current users and customers to participate in fact-finding sessions, or use surveys to ask questions that will shed light on why people use products when and how they do.
- A/B test. Testing the public responses to different types of content can reveal what works and what does not. An A/B test presents slightly different versions of content, such as an ad with the same words but different images. The version that performs better can be duplicated, while the other can be tweaked or used in further testing.
4. Set the Budget
Every potential cost must be taken into account when creating a media plan. A campaign might require payment for display advertising, social media ad placement, sponsored social media posts, paid search engine ad placement, influencer marketing expense, and more.
The media buyer’s role is to provide estimated costs for all of these items. The media planner then uses that information to determine cost-effective ways to create and distribute content.
Hidden or unanticipated costs can derail a marketing campaign. Be sure to build in an “emergency” fund to cover extra costs such as fees, commissions, testing, and unforeseen expenditures.
Media Planning vs. Media Buying
A media planner develops the plan. A media buyer executes the plan. They work together to ensure that the content is delivered to the right people in the right places at the right times.
A media buyer, as the title implies, oversees efforts related to paid media. Media buyers must possess a working knowledge of the platforms used to distribute content — and how much it costs to use those platforms.
This includes social media advertising and paid search advertising, as well as traditional advertising methods such as outdoor billboards, TV, radio and newspapers. In most cases, a media buyer is assigned a budget once the media plan is developed.
Below is an overview of the working relationship between media planners and media buyers.
How Media Planners and Buyers Work Together
A media planner and media buyer typically consult at the start of the planning process. The planner relies on the expertise of the buyer, while the buyer works to ensure the plan is executed as expected.
The buyer’s role is to stay informed about cost and availability of paid platforms such as search engine ads (pay-per-click or banner ads), website advertising, social media ads, and traditional forms of advertising. The buyer might also recommend what platform or platforms make the most sense for the planner to incorporate, based on the campaign goals.
The planner relies on the buyer to place the content and monitor the amount of money spent. A buyer might also monitor key performance indicators, such as reach, frequency, audience engagement, conversions, and other important data.
Executing the Media Plan
On the organic, or non-paid, side of the campaign, the media planner might rely on a content manager or social media manager to distribute the content. On the paid side, the media buyer’s job is to:
- Recommend paid advertising options
- Buy ad space for a specific campaign
- Negotiate rates for content distribution
- Work with the content team to ensure all visual and wording guidelines are met (especially true for social media ads)
- Set spending limits for paid search campaigns
- Conduct campaign analysis to ensure cost efficiency
A media planner and media buyer should maintain communication throughout a campaign to be sure that all elements of the campaign are in sync. For example, if a media buyer finds that a particular paid search keyword has proved ineffective, they might pull the spending from that keyword and assign it to another.
The bottom line for the media planner-media buyer relationship: Neither one can operate effectively without the other’s clearly communicated input.
Media Plan Resources
- Investopedia, “What Is Media Buying?”
- Google, “What Is Paid Search?”
- Business 2 Community, “Media Planning vs. Media Buying: What’s the Difference?”
Media Planning and Marketing
The average U.S. consumer spends more than 12 hours per day consuming media in some form, according to consumer research conducted by eMarketer. It is incumbent on marketing teams to develop an effective media plan to reach consumers where they are.
Media planning requires a thorough grasp of the use of different forms of media (digital and traditional). A media planner needs to know about the platforms that can deliver the message, as well as the costs associated with them. A well-conceived media strategy saves time and money, ensures efficient delivery of content to the right people, and helps an organization channel its creative energy toward developing content that supports sales, marketing, and brand awareness goals.