The Value of Media Positioning

This week I'd like to share my knowledge and views on something I've had a lot of experience with and that applies to all media -- positioning. Positioning is extremely important in all media and to ignore positioning is to walk away from value, lots of it. Why? Because superior position can put the creative in front of the target audience for a longer period of time and in a more engaging context. This can aid ad recall and message association lifts, providing more value for each media dollar spent.

Despite this, positioning does not receive the attention it deserves. As most of you already know, when buying media, primary considerations when evaluating options are target composition, total audience, pricing, merchandising, and positioning. When a buyer is in a hurry, the last two elements can take a back seat on the road trip that is your buy even though they can be as important as the other.

Why are positioning and merchandising not treated with more respect? Some postulates: First, it is possible to make fairly intelligent decisions using only composition, reach, and pricing. Smashing composition, audience, and pricing together into a spreadsheet can produce some pretty compelling buy recommendations. Second, negotiating positioning and merchandising takes a lot of back and forth between the buyer and the sales representative. Deadlines necessitates prioritization, and sometimes people misprioritize "I'll just put position 'TBD' on the insertion order and I'll sort it out later."

This is a mistake. I have learned this not so much from the few times that I have not specified positioning, but by the many times I do specify it correctly. I feel affirmed every time I open a magazine or visit a web site and see the ad in the position that I negotiated. I feel great, and think, "cool, now that is great media value." I feel even better when I negotiate a cover position, especially the coveted 4th Covers (that's the back cover, mom), or prominent sponsorship positions. I feel just as good when the ad is adjacent or in the midst of some really engaging edit, especially if it is super relevant to my client. Guess what? Such placement makes the creative more effective and the client's money, on both creative and media, better spent. That is a good feeling.

What is the basis for my feeling good in these situations? How do we know what is good positioning? First let's take a look at some traditional research that establishes general positioning guidelines for optimal positioning, then we'll discuss why bending these rules can result in superior placement.

Taking the print medium as the point of comparison, let's use traditional research compiled by Magazine Dimensions, (1999 Media Dynamics, Inc.) based on Burke, Gallup & Robinson, Starch and other studies, to quantify these positioning variables against an index (100) of an average inside P4C (Page, 4 Color) unit, in terms of how they influence ad recall. These numbers will support many of the conclusions that one could arrive at anecdotally, but are valuable to see nonetheless.

First, 4th Cover and 2nd Cover positions are more impactful than an inside page, while 3rd Cover is often not. According to the research, 4th Cover indexes at 120, meaning it is 20% more effective at increasing ad recall than an average inside page ad. 2nd Cover indexes at 112, making it 12% more effective, while 3rd Cover falls behind at 90 (10% less effective than an inside page). Yes, 3rd Cover, on average, is a worse position than your average inside page. This is probably because many magazines put an ad, or even worse, edit that they would not put anywhere else in the magazine under the guise of having something snappy opposite the cover.

Second, the 1st third of the magazine indexes at 110, the middle third at 101, and the last third at 86. Obviously the relative successes of 2nd and 3rd cover positions are tied to this.

Third, left hand (LH) or right hand (RH) positioning don't matter. The 1999 Starch study for the Newspaper Association of America proving that the left-hand ads scored the same as the right-hand ads.

Opposite ad or edit? Edit, all the way. Research is not needed to tell a one that being opposite edit is preferable to being opposite an ad. Being adjacent to the content that with which the audience is engaging is desirable in all media. In print, you want to be opposite an ad if you are running a page, and ideally opposite and adjacent to edit for a fractional. The latter is not usually feasible for some publications, but it is a Grail for which to strive. In broadcast, position 1 in a pod is the most desirable because it presents your client's message before the viewers have figured out that it is a commercial pod and escape to the kitchen for a snack or soda.

OK, so in print we want ideally a 4th Cover or 2nd Cover position, or far forward opposite edit, right? Basic media stuff that all print buyers know. Perhaps.

These studies present averages from which there are many reasons to deviate. Some major considerations:

1) Creative - creative, which is obviously the most important element in eliciting ad recall, might work optimally only in certain areas. The creative may speak to a certain type of edit or to the audience that reads a type of edit. It may only work on the Left Hand side of the page. It may require being inside the magazine, and would not work as a 4th Cover.

2) Uniqueness of Vehicles - every vehicle is different; they are not all read identically. Not all inside positions are the same; not all 2nd Cover and 3rd are created equal. Some 2nd and 3rd Covers are opposite edit, some ads. The edit opposite these positions can be amongst the most popular in the magazine, thus raising the value of a 3rd Cover position to above the average inside position. The inside positions themselves may be more valuable later in the publication if the readership knows to look there for the best edit sections.

3) Uniqueness of Vehicle Category - Some categories of publications break the rules; gaming publications, for one. A Starch study for Imagine Media demonstrated that the magazines are read cover to cover, engaging with the ads throughout.

4) Uniqueness of Edit - Not only do edit sections have different relevant values, but individual pieces may influence ad recall considerably because of the context in which they place the ads. Certain products and services scream for "must-have" positions, while others are fine opposite most edit, except certain types.

5) Premium - Many publications will try to charge a premium for Cover positions, as well as some other coveted spaces, recognizing the added value that these positions typically provide. Depending on the position in question, paying a slight premium may be reasonable, justified by the boost in ad recall. When the premium becomes too high, a buyer must be ready to walk away if it cannot be negotiated.

6) Ad banks up front - The exception to up front positioning would be in the case of ad banks or partial edit and partial ad opposite. It stands to reason that a good "sponsorship" or appropriate edit position inside the book would be preferred to this. The Fashion and Beauty category probably breaks all of the rules in this area as an exception, though.

You should always take these six considerations into account when making positioning decisions, just as you should always take positioning into account when making buying decisions. I've found that this attention to position pays off and I can often secure optimal positioning for my client. One hardly ever gets optimal positioning unless one asks for it, so if you are a buyer, get on the phone and call your sales representatives now to increase the impact of your clients' advertising.

Eliot Kent-Uritam is the manager of the consulting group at Mediasmith, Inc., a San Francisco and New York based Integrated Solutions Media Agency and Consultant.

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