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When Advertising Bets Are Off: Media Planning and the COVID-19 Crisis



Your media planning strategies from February may or may not tell you much in April or May.

Two months ago, you understood the marketplace and your business, competitors, media costs, results and even the season. But with the world upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, the only information you can use right now comes from yesterday.

If everything is upside down, then let’s start with something completely different: professional auto racing. Drivers at the top of their game push their cars to the absolute edge without going over it, all while focusing on the next hundred feet, the next turn and the next lap. They go faster and win by managing through the race’s chaos. They have an expression “With control comes confidence, and with confidence comes speed.”

Control and confidence – that sounds like the right starting point. That’s what we need right now. We had it five weeks ago. Here are five steps to get it back.

The top priority for brands is to understand their business position. That means assembling a quick dashboard that brings together all of the business-critical KPIs into one place and updating daily. Maybe it’s something fancy or maybe it’s just Excel – the key is getting it done right now. Are KPIs trending down, steady or up? You might throw out the weeks of March 9 and 16; they are the outliers, the weeks of initial shock. KPI trends set the stage for the biggest decisions: whether to pull back media investment, hold steady or scale.

Step two is quickly assessing any audience shifts or impact. Are there new audiences buying your product as a result of the changes? How is COVID-19 affecting your audience segments? A quick update of audience profile might do the trick. Grab a map of COVID-19 and compare it to the geographic distribution of your audience segments. Are they being hit hard now or is it coming?

Step three is to rapidly assess the dramatic changes happening in the media marketplace. Right now there are media channels that are far less expensive while others aren’t. Linear television, programmatic OTT and display inventory, and a few OTT networks are just some examples of media where costs have significantly dropped while consumption is increasing. Smaller businesses have exited Facebook and YouTube, for example, causing these two channels to become more efficient.

Step four is to apply marketplace changes to your media mix. How does your mix change as a result? Do these reductions of 10-50% in cost compensate for lower business or simply help propel your brand forward? Your media mix of two months ago, developed over years of testing and learning, may very well be invalid because the relative costs across your channels has changed.

That’s OK, because the media marketplace right now has never presented more opportunity if your business can stay in the game. How are competitors changing their investments? How do relative Google search interest indices look between you and your competitors? Who is trending up or down?

Step five involves taking on a somewhat narrow, short-term view for the next couple of months. Media that is not immediately canceled needs to be negotiated for the short term. You will find that many of your media partners are far more flexible now than they were 30 days ago. They are seeing advertisers pull out, and they want to work with you. Are those not being flexible critical to your plan?

Coupled with a short-term view is also a very strong focus on immediate signals from your campaign. In the past you had historical measures and perhaps statistical modeling to guide media investment and allocations. For the next eight weeks, you need to focus on what you can read from yesterday: immediate response from linear TV and paid social and search, conversion reporting from streaming audio, programmatic media and OTT and other “what happened yesterday” measures. These measures are never quite accurate because they do not account for cross-channel effects, but they can serve as directional indicators for short-term decision-making.

Take all of these steps and you will gain a greater sense of control, which will give you far greater confidence, which will enable you to act more quickly and effectively. You will be able to focus your campaign on the next 100 feet, the next turn and the next lap.

Yes, it’s chaotic and it may feel very different from how you managed media in the past, but it’s what will get you to the other side of this crisis. It’s your stop-gap strategy until your more typical inputs, strategies and tactics can kick back in.

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