Think beyond the media plan towards the audience experience

In the latest in a series of guest columns on the future of media planning, Ed Cox says brands and agencies need a better understanding of audiences.

Media agencies have become highly optimised and efficient organisations, delivering truckloads of media value for their clients, but something seems to have gone missing over the past few years in this era of consolidation and industrialisation.

What's lacking is a real understanding of the human beings at the end of the chain: the audience – and specifically who they are, how they behave and the media they consume.

For starters, media agencies seem to have retreated from the planning.

Perhaps that’s because creative agency planners are leading thinking for clients and also that clients have upskilled themselves, while media owners have invested in planning and strategy skills, and are going direct to brands. 

But, wherever media agency planners do exist, it seems to me that they are still too narrow-minded and focused on paid media. That’s understandable, but it’s time for a change in thinking… and doing. 

Defining the audiences that brands want to reach

One place to start is rethinking how we define and describe audiences.

Media planning has become a discipline reliant on broad brushstrokes that paint groups of people by numbers, while so little brand activity is based on actual knowledge of audiences.

Planners frequently rely on syndicated data when creating media plans, rather than getting out into the real world to hear from people or experience the product-buying process themselves.

I would like to see more planners taking time to understand why audiences behave the way they do, and the increase in the amount of data available hasn’t necessarily helped with this.

It’s fantastic to have information at the tip of your fingers, whether search, social, location or other real-time data, and it provides us all with a robust backbone to our thinking.

But while it tells you what is happening, it doesn’t get you anywhere near to an understanding of why.

Quite simply, getting out of the agency and into the real world is a great start.

Walk a mile in the shoes of your customer. At the very least, go out and meet and talk to some actual customers or those in the target audience.

Ask your planners what they learned the last time they hung out with some customers. I think you’ll more often than not see a shifty look at the ground and a retreat to a TGI stat.

The reality is there is a lot more to media effectiveness than paid media channels.

When you talk to real audiences – or observe them – you will see how many more touchpoints there are in the path to purchase beyond media.

Distribution, word of mouth, habit, promotions… these are frequently stronger influences in consumers’ buying journeys than seeing an ad in paid media. 

Let’s face it, though, the majority of media agency processes aren’t built with the curious planner in mind – the chance to get out from behind your desk and develop a real understanding of your audience and how they behave is all too rare.

But living the consumer experience of the brand is vital, because it can lead you to develop rounded and effective communications plans – not just a cookie-cutter media plan.

The experience is bigger than the media buy

We should be evolving our thinking and planning from media planning to experience planning.

Where is the consumer in the path to purchase? What do they want or need to hear from us? How is that piece of communication going to be received and how do we adapt our message delivery accordingly? 

And then, when it does come to the "media" bit of the plan, planners really need to be much closer to the media environment itself.

Too many recommendations are formed purely on the basis of the media owner’s sales deck. 

I’m not saying it’s easy to keep tabs on the thousands of media channels out there, but media folk really have a duty to know the media they plan into.

So, yes, I’m prescribing ITV3, YouTube "gaming" channels and TikTok, but also The Lady, IT Pro and FourFourTwo, so you know the culture and tone of these environments and can appreciate the context of the message to really make the most of it. 

What needs to change? Not much, but also everything. More focus on the entire customer journey and all the touchpoints in it, not just the paid media ones, would bring more perspective. Leading you towards a better audience understanding and a more interesting life as a planner.

And better results from your campaigns, of course.

Ed Cox is founder and managing director of Yonder Media

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