The Difference Between Tactical and Strategic Media Planning

Media planning is a combination of art and science -- and whether you know it or not, it has been changing over the last few years. There are many traditional ways to create a media plan, but the basics are always the same: you identify the target audience and then hypothesize the right types of media vehicles and placements that will reach them with a targeted message. What has changed is the difference between tactical media planning and strategic media planning.

Many agencies practice tactical media planning rather than strategic media planning, and there is a subtle difference. Tactical media planning is based on immediate tactical parameters like budgets, periods of time and immediate response metrics. Strategic media planning is more needs-based and focused on the longer-term business objectives with latent response metrics such as brand awareness -- and the correlation between brand building and response metrics for customer acquisition.

The problem is that the Internet is fast becoming a medium for tactical rather than strategic planning. The biggest spenders online use the medium as a DR vehicle, and the plan parameters that most brands are using are budget, target and flight driven. There is very little to no anticipation of the long-term effects and goals of one's advertising.

That can be a problem, especially in an economic downturn. When the economy is down, brands have an opportunity to maintain spend and effectively increase share of voice. That can translate to an effective rise in the performance of campaigns over the long term. That is certainly every brand's goal, but how many times are media agencies tasked to create annual plans that are actually followed through? Even in annual plans, much optimization takes place.

Too many brands, and as a result too many agencies, are looking at things from the perspective of a short-term campaign plan. They want to know what things are doing now rather than how they accumulate over time. The creative is intended to drive immediate action and there is no foresight given to brand building.

Over time, your campaign can be more effective if you create a relationship with the consumer. Just look at a brand like eSurance. It was primarily a direct-response advertiser for a number of years, but then it gambled with illustrated cartoon ads on TV, supporting that with a combination of DR and brand ads online. ESurance now leads the category (according to a recent source that I saw). Company strategists must have determined that standing out in the eyes of the consumer and beginning to create a relationship would translate into stronger ROI in the long run.

Most agencies are not given the opportunity to be involved in a client's long-term planning. As a matter of fact, most agencies are afraid that their clients will up and leave at anytime, so they can't push to get into the long-term opportunities when they know they will be evaluated against the short-term metrics. That fear of always being dropped makes it harder to have confidence in the long term. It feels as though the average length of a relationship in digital is about three years, and it's hard to build a deep relationship in that short a time.

So the fact is that tactical planning is the name of the game these days -- while strategic planning is what everyone wants, but rarely gets. It's funny, because if you poll the brands, they will say their agencies lack creativity and innovation -- but if you ask most agencies, they'll say their clients won't allow or compensate them for those kinds of ideas. Which side of the equation is correct? Who's really to say?

Don't get sucked into this pickle. When you're being tasked to sit down and develop a plan, be sure to break it down into short-term and long-term opportunities. Or better yet, look back and determine what role each media vehicle should play in the grand scheme, aiming to be strategic rather than just tactical. It may just create a stronger relationship with your client. Even if they aren't aware of it.

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