Five steps to help you write a successful digital media plan

Successful digital media planning made easy

Okay, we’re going to start super basic here: so, what is media planning, anyway?

In a nutshell, media planning is the process of researching, recommending and optimizing the mix of paid media tactics and channels to best align with your communications goals.

It sounds simple enough when you put it that way, but so many marketers feel like running for the hills when it comes time to plan their media mix, especially in a constantly changing digital world. And sure, digital media planning can be challenging. It means getting your hands dirty with data, understanding a million acronyms – like DSP (Demand-Side Platform), RTB (Real-Time Bidding) and ROAS (Return on Ad Spend) – and keeping up with constant changes to the media landscape. That said, media planning need not elicit such a guttural reaction. If you can start with a strong marketing and communications strategy and a solid understanding of your intended audience, the right media mix will follow.

Step 1: Start with your goals

The media campaign goals are usually the first piece to be written into a media plan, and for good reason. There’s no point in writing a media plan if it doesn’t fit your end goal. A media plan for Wisconsin Department of Health’s Tobacco is Changing campaign – which aims to teach parents about the newest tobacco products – simply doesn’t make sense for Madison College’s enrollment campaign – which encourages prospective students to sign up to learn more about the college. Different goals beget different media approaches. Back out from the end goal to inform your media decisions.

The best digital media plans start with a single realistic, measurable goal. Many campaigns, however, require secondary goals. These are typically used to evaluate digital tactics that are meant to reach people earlier in the decision process. If the primary media goal of the campaign is an event, such as a lead, initial events such as site visits may be used to evaluate a tactic’s ability to increase awareness and engagement.

When establishing goals for a digital media campaign, it’s important to choose goals that are both measurable and realistic. They should be backed by your own historical media performance data, industry benchmarks and broader organizational goals. A strong set of goals for a lead-driving media campaign for higher education might look like:

Primary goal: 

  • Achieve a CPL (cost-per lead) of $500

Secondary goals:

  • Achieve a CTR (click-through rate) of 0.5%
  • Reach more than 2 million unique individuals

In this example, the target CPL would be based on historic media performance, where a CPL around $500+ has been observed in past campaigns, as well as the value of a single lead, which may have been around $600+. The target CTR is based on the industry benchmark for education of 0.5%, and finally, achieving a reach of 2 million individuals would be based on available budget and intended audience size.

Setting a campaign up with realistic, measurable goals is the first building block in writing an effective media plan.

Step 2: Know your audience

Entire library collections  could be written about defining your audience, but it really comes down to being able to answer three questions affirmatively:

  • Do you know exactly who your audience is?
  • Do you know exactly how they consume media?
  • Do you know exactly how they will decide whether to take a desired action (based on your primary or secondary goals)?

In the case of the higher education example from above, it is important to be as specific as possible in defining your audience. Simply defining an audience as “prospective students” does not go far enough. It helps to identify a specific persona – such as a “motivated high school senior” – to begin your audience discussion with.

If you can tightly establish your goals and define your audience, you are well on your way to writing your media plan.

Step 3: Identify tactics & channels

After you have established your campaign goals and defined your target audience, it’s time to identify which tactics and channels will be an effective mix to reach your audience, while also identifying the time and place where they will most likely to take a desired action. This includes evaluating channels based on a number of criteria, including:

  • Does this channel offer sufficient reach and the ability to target my intended audience?
  • How does my audience consume media on this channel?
  • What types of ad placements does this channel offer?
  • Do I have historical media performance data from a particular channel?
If so: Did it support one of my goals?
If not: What are the industry benchmarks for this tactic/channel, and do they support my goals?

Elaborating on the higher education example to target motivated high school seniors to encourage them to submit a lead on a website for more information, you might consider Instagram:

  • Instagram use among Gen Z (ages 9-23) is now above 80%, and ad targeting on Instagram leverages Facebook’s proprietary user data to target niche audiences at scale.
  • We know Gen Z uses Instagram to keep up with their friends, as well as influencers and brands they find relevant to their lives and interests.
  • Instagram offers ad placements on stories or in a user’s feed, as both video and images. Additionally, it offers lead generation ads for users to submit a lead without leaving the Instagram platform.
  • Historical education industry performance shows that Instagram is an engaging channel that drives above-average CTRs among Gen Z audiences. 

Based on the above information, Instagram is a strong consideration for this media mix.

Step 4: It’s all in the details

Once you have your media mix established, you have to figure out the small details, including:

  • Specific audience targets (digital)
  • Timing (time of day, day of week, month, etc.)
  • Budget allocation per platform and tactic

In our higher education example, the specific targets will change depending on the platform. On Instagram, you can target by age and education, including targeting to current high school students. You might also consider refining your target to people interested in a particular area of study, such as nursing.

When considering timing, it is important to consider the time of the day and the days of the week when your audiences are most likely to use and engage on the channel you are targeting. For instance, a high school audience may be most likely to use Instagram in the mid-afternoon at the end of the school day, and are more active on the weekends than throughout the week. Digital channels allow you to target ads to specific times and days of the week to maximize impact.

When considering budget, it is important to consider your ultimate goal: in this case, leads. You can analyze data from your website and media performance to approximate how many people you need to reach in a wider net in order to collect a lead. From there you can build out budgets based on each channel, tactic and size of your audience.

Step 5: Buy & optimize

Traditionally, a media planner’s job ended once the ad space was bought and secured. However, the growth in digital media, and more importantly the ability to track digital media, gives media teams the ability to optimize campaigns in real-time. This may mean shifting budget to better-performing tactics, changing bid strategies or audience targets to better reach the audiences that are most likely to take a desired action.Most importantly, it may mean recognizing a recommended tactic isn’t working and it’s time to pull the plug.

Digital media planning doesn’t need to be a scary prospect. The most important thing is to start with a strong base, including:

  • Defining your goals & how you will measure your media efforts against them
  • Understanding your audience – who they are, what makes them tick and how they consume media
  • Using all of the available data at your disposal to explore tactics & channels that are likely to have the greatest impact, and to optimize your efforts throughout the campaign

By following the five steps laid out above, you will be well-positioned to manage your organization’s next digital media campaign.

Happy planning.