Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The new media planner

How quaint it is that everybody who reads the Guardian newspaper sees the same ad.  Geography teachers and media executives, social workers and architects, all seeing the same brands.  People who buy 4x4s see Prius ads, people who never travel see easyJet ads.  This is how it always has been in traditional media, whether it’s TV, press or radio.

But this isn’t how life is in digital, and it could spell the death of the media planner as we understand them now.

Almost from the start, online advertising (and let’s be clear here, we’re just talking about banner-type ads) has been served to users in a ‘carousel’ – if I look at MSN’s home page at the same time as another person, there’s a good chance we’ll see different ads.

Initially, this was simply random.  But technology quickly enabled advertisers to target people based on the characteristics of their internet connection – where they were in the world, what language their computer was set to – as well as time of day, day of week etc.

But whilst this was useful, we still didn’t know anything about the people who were looking at our ads, and traditional approaches to media planning still dominated – inferring characteristics of consumers based on the site’s overall profile.

But technology is now being applied which could change all that, and improve the efficiency of the online channel still further.

Behavioural targeting is being used by publishers to create individual profiles of visitors to their site.  So a reader who has visited the motoring section of the Guardian’s website twice in the last month might be shown a car ad whilst they’re in the arts section.

Increasingly, the growth in advertiser demand is leaving sites short of first-class inventory, and behavioural targeting offers them the ability to charge a premium for ads appearing in less demanded environments.   And for advertisers, this is an important hedge against media inflation, as shortages would otherwise drive pricing up.

Revenue Science, who provide this technology to the Guardian, now work with most of the UK’s leading newspapers sites, and similar technologies are employed by a range of other publishers, including Yahoo, who are using the search behaviour of their visitors to segment and target them with display advertising.

But there’s an interesting conundrum that remains unanswered.  Publishers are using technologies to ‘top-slice’ their inventory, putting all of the more valuable consumers into one segment and selling them to advertisers at a premium.  Good for them.  But if they’ve taken the more valuable consumers out of the overall pot of impressions they have to sell, then what remains – the segment made up of all the people not deemed worthy of selling at a premium – is worth less.

Smart buyers are pursuing this in the market, arguing that a discount should be applied to any ‘untargeted’ media they buy.  So in the end, whilst this technology might be very smart, it could result in a zero-sum game for publishers as the premium for behaviourally targeted inventory is offset by the discount commanded by the leftovers.

But it isn’t just individual sites that are applying these technologies.  Ad networks (who sell inventory on behalf of multiple publishers) are segmenting audiences based on their behaviour across the network and their responsiveness to advertising, to target consumers across the network – making those ads more valuable to advertisers.

Media has come a long way from showing the same ad to everyone.  But behavioural targeting is moving the game on another step, as it shifts the focus of planning from media to consumer-centric.  This is a fundamental and exciting evolution – the challenge is for media planners to adapt, as the environment decouples from the ad message. 

As this happens, we could see a new breed of planner emerge, one who combines understanding of brand, consumer insight and a fluency with the new media ecosystem – a hybrid of account, data and media planners.  Perhaps they’ll drop the qualifier, and just be planners.

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