A Marketer's Guide to Paid Advertising

Creating a strategic media plan is crucial to any advertising campaigns success. And when planned comprehensively and holistically, a media plan can exceed your advertising goals.

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How to Create a Media Plan

Creating a strategic media plan is crucial to any advertising campaign’s success. There are many factors that play a role in determining the overall effectiveness of paid media, including the type of content being distributed, as well as how, when and where. No two media plans are created alike, as each has its own strategy and approach. When planned comprehensively and holistically, a media plan can not only satisfy a brand’s advertising goals and objectives, but also exceed them. The following parameters should be taken into account when creating a media advertising campaign:

Define campaign objectives. This step may seem like a no brainer, but it’s crucial that both brand and media partner are aligned on the campaign goals and objectives, and the strategy by which advertising will be used to achieve these goals. Both the content and channels should help advertisers meet these objectives. On the other hand, it’s important not to have too many objectives for any one media plan. For instance, if the primary goal is to drive website traffic to a microsite, all ads should ultimately lead users to that site. Don’t design your ads to keep people on your Facebook page if the campaign objective is to drive outbound traffic to your website. Remember that consumers can get overwhelmed easily, especially when their attention is already being pulled in so many different directions on a daily basis. Make it as easy for them as possible to engage with your advertising by keeping CTA’s short and concise with a clear message that directs users to take a specific action.

Let the content lead.  Many advertisers make the mistake of thinking that they should select the channels to advertise their content on before even deciding on the content itself. However, this can result in a lack of authenticity when you try to create content to fit a particular platform, rather than the other way around. Determining the type of content that will help spread your message, such as a microsite or video pre-roll, needs to be done before other pieces of the puzzle can be put in place.

If you haven’t yet solidified a creative concept, start with your goals and objectives and move forward from there. For example, if your business is launching a new product line, consider developing video content that introduces the new product. Additional creative, such as a landing page and pre-roll can be created to help support the message and provide customers with an end destination after engaging with your ad.

Quick Reference Guide

Download this quick reference guide and share it with your team. It provides an overview of the top channels for digital advertising, including the most common types of ad placements and formats.

Select media channels and ad placements. When selecting the channels that make the most sense for your media plan, don’t let your brand voice and tone get lost in the decision. Picking a social media platform because it’s new, trendy, and your target audience uses it may seem appealing, but it may not be the wisest choice or most efficient use of ad dollars. It’s important to instead choose the channels that align with your brand and make the most sense for your particular message. Brands should always aim to be as authentic as possible in both their messaging and the way they deliver this messaging to their audience. When a channel is the right fit for a brand, advertising becomes more seamless and less intrusive, which in turns increases the likelihood that customers will engage. For instance, a banner advertising home décor on acts as a supplement to the website content, even enriching the user experience.

The number of channels you select will depend on several factors, such as your overall budget and how long you plan to have your media in market. It’s important not to spread content too thin by trying to be on as many channels as possible. Instead it’s more effective to pick a smaller number of platforms on which you can have a significant impact, as this will help better saturate that particular market. When selecting specific ad positioning, do your research on each channel to figure out which placements will garner you the biggest bang for your buck. Most digital platforms have multiple ad products to choose from, but only one or two will make the most sense for your particular campaign. For instance, Twitter’s ad suite includes several different Tweet Cards that have been designed specifically for a desired end result, such as a website conversions or video view. Also know whether to run your digital advertisements across mobile, desktop, or a combination of the two. We will dig deeper into each channel in a later section.

Calculate the estimated reach of your campaign. You can calculate the estimated number of people that will be exposed to your advertisement before your campaign even begins. Of course you should expect to account for fluctuations due to marketplace competition or low ad inventory, but this will give you a general sense of how many unique users you can expect to reach with your advertising. When purchasing digital media, most platforms will provide an estimated audience reach size when the campaign is being set up. Make sure that your media partner communicates these numbers to you, and is capable of making adjustments if needed in order to maximize the scale of the campaign.

In traditional advertising, an agency is able to calculate roughly how many people will see your TV commercial using a Gross Rating Points (GRPs) calculation. This is quantified by multiplying the reach of the ad by the frequency, or number of times each person or household will be exposed to the ad. Knowing the GRPs for a particular market can inform whether your dollars will be spent efficiently, or if they should be shifted into a different designated market area or DMA.

Outline audience targeting. Once the channels and ad placements have been determined, your media partner should define what different audience groups they will be targeting with your content. This is what makes paid media advertising so exciting and unique; with strategic targeting, brands are able to reach untapped audience segments that organic media alone cannot. Campaigns can be targeted as niche or as generic as a brand wants – just be sure that your targeting net isn’t cast too narrow or too wide.

Targeting capabilities vary depending on the channel, but constant technological advancements mean that advertisers can be more accurate than ever before. Common strategies include demographic targeting, such as selecting people of a certain gender and/or age who live in a specific geo-location. SEM targeting strategies include selecting keywords, popular search terms and phrases that align with your content and are popular among your audiences. Competitive conquesting can be used to target people who are interested in your competitors or similar brands. Interests and behavior-based targeting allows an advertisers to deliver an ad to someone who likes a particular good or service, or adheres to specific consumer habits. Additionally, website retargeting allows you to deliver an ad to people who have previously visited your website, which increases the likelihood of an engagement as they have demonstrated through past behavior that they have an interest in your brand.

Allocate budget and campaign flight dates. When determining what portion of your overall media budget to allocate to each channel, your agency should factor in the cost per click (CPC) and cost per thousand impressions (CPM) rates for those channels. Some platforms are more cost effective and your dollars will go further on certain channels than others. Ensure the budget allocated to each channel is enough to meet satisfactory delivery, understanding that mid-campaign budget adjustments can always be made. For instance, if one channel is performing better than another, delivering more clicks and a lower cost per click, consider reallocating a percentage of the budget into that platform. While some platforms require a minimum up-front investment, many are more fluid and don’t require a minimum ad spend. 

When applicable, consider an “always on” strategy in which media is constantly running throughout the year. This keeps your content consistently in front of audiences while creating a clean and clear picture of performance fluctuations, which can help inform future campaign decisions. Conversely, if there is a specific time of year or season in which your brand is more popular, focus your efforts and dollars during that time period. For instance, a company that sells outdoor patio furniture should primarily run media campaigns leading up to and during the summer months.

Look to past media performance to garner insights. The analysis conducted after a campaign has ended is extremely beneficial in informing campaign future initiatives. When creating a new media plan, always take a look at prior media performance as the insights gained will help make future recommendations more tactical and strategic. Take note of the channels that performed best, the type of content that resonated most with your audiences, and the targeting that garnered the most engagement with your ads.

Let's face it, you're busy and more than likely you're depending on a media partner to manage your paid advertising efforts. It can be a challenge for many marketers to evaluate a presented media plan. As you seek to determine whether your advertising agency has presented a plan for an effective paid media campaign, there are several questions to ask yourself. Will my content be seen by the right people? Do the recommended channels make sense for my brand? How do I know my dollars are being utilized efficiently? The following checklist was designed to help ensure that a media plan is as tactical as possible, and delivers the greatest opportunity for success.

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How to Evaluate Your Agency's Media Plan

Are you playing in the same space as your competitors?

It may seem counterintuitive to be buying ad space right next to your competitors, but in order to obtain a portion of the SOV pie, this is exactly where you should be. It also explains why multiple advertisers drive costs up; the familiar adage is true: you have to pay to play. To remedy your messaging getting lost in a cluttered marketplace, consider running dayparted media so that people are being exposed to multiple unique messages throughout the day. For instance, dayparting a radio buy allows a consumer to hear a different message on the drive to work than they do on the commute home. This will ensure that your content reaches a high resonation among consumers while also rising above the noise of competitors. That being said, your agency should strategically utilize frequency capping so that unique user reach remains large and the same people aren’t receiving the same messaging multiple times.

Do the proposed platforms make sense for both your brand and your audience?

An agency shouldn’t recommend buying media on a platform that is popular among your audience, but doesn’t make sense for your brand. Consumers, especially Millennials, are becoming more and more weary of blanketed advertising, and are quick to disengage with a brand who appears disingenuous in their marketing efforts. According to a 2015 Forbes study, nearly half of Millennials ranked authenticity as more important than the content itself. As a result, these irrelevant media buys will only yield poor ad performance and higher cost-per metrics. Depending on the type of content, there should be a mix of traditional advertising, such as print and radio, with digital advertising like social media and SEM. Of course, certain creative will warrant a more niche, focused media plan, but a combination of the two is typically most effective. This will ensure your media dollars are working as efficiently as possible while also reaching consumers with diverse messaging through 
a variety of mediums.

Does your agency have a measurable way to evaluate success?

No two media plans are alike; therefore, campaign performance reports should not all reflects the same KPI’s. For instance, a media campaign that is promoting video ad content should measure video view-through rates and cost per video view, while CTA campaigns should focus on maintaining a low cost per conversion. Again, impressions are a weak value metric and shouldn’t be the sole indicator your agency uses to measure strong campaign performance. In many cases, unique user reach and resulting engagements tells a more accurate story of how many people were exposed to your content.

Does the targeting align with your current and/or prospective audience?

A strategic targeting approach is crucial to the success of any media plan. This may seem like common sense, but advertisers can often get caught up in the numbers game, focusing more on securing as many impressions as possible, rather than ensuring meaningful saturation that leads to the ultimate action, a conversion. Impressions, though a weak metric anyway, mean even less if your messaging is not reaching the right people. Targeting capabilities, especially across digital media, are now more advanced than ever that advertisers would be remiss not to leverage them as strategically as possible. Want to exclusively target a 44-year old woman who has four kids and shops at Whole Foods? Now you can.

Does your agency have an optimization plan?

A truly great media plan is one that is fluid and accounts for ongoing changes in the marketplace. While you may be locked in to certain traditional ad placements for the full investment, digital media is much more adaptable. Your agency should be consistently monitoring campaign dashboards and evaluating performance to assess when optimizations should be made. For instance, if one ad placement is underperforming, your agency should make a timely decision to adjust budget allocations accordingly and funnel more dollars into the better performing placements. Additionally, A/B testing should be executed in order to test different creative and, if the length of the campaign warrants it, optimizations can be made. This type of testing is ideal when the campaign is running constantly for at least one week.

Is there opportunity for earned media growth?

More and more, brands are beginning to view paid media as a way to leverage both organic and earned media. One of advertising’s biggest success stories is when a campaign not only pays for itself, but continues to generate growth and interest even when paid media is no longer running. Word of mouth and social sharing that results from a digital media buy can lead to increased user reach and conversions that a brand isn’t even paying for. Take Pinterest for example: if a brand launches a Promoted Pins campaign and several people re-pin the content, the brand will continue to reap the benefits via earned media impressions and engagements long after the campaign has ended due to the nature of Pinterest and its user algorithm. That content is still being seen, experienced, and shared by people who may have never been exposed to the content via paid media. Learn more about IQ’s take on Pinterest here. As a result, earned media makes paid media even more powerful and cost effective.

How to Measure the Effectiveness of Media

With the ever-evolving landscapes of both digital and traditional advertising, brands are able to track their media campaigns more closely than ever. For many, the sheer amount of data can be overwhelming as brands try to sift through the numbers to zero in on what metrics really matter as true indicators of success. Media advertising has altered the way companies measure ROI, while also equipping them with the tools and insights that will help make future marketing efforts even more effective. When determining the success of a media buy, and knowing how to strategically plan future campaigns, it’s crucial to evaluate several key performance indicators, or KPI’s.

It’s important to define the complete list of metrics that will be evaluated both during and post-campaign before the media buy even begins. This not only ensures that both the brand and media agency are aligned in understanding the goals and objectives of the campaign, but also establishes any applicable optimization parameters. For example, when running a video campaign, your media agency should keep a close eye on Cost Per View and Video Completion Rate metrics. If these numbers are too high and too low, respectively, the agency should optimize the campaign accordingly, adjusting the target bid or rotating in a new version of creative. Measuring media effectiveness is just as important during the campaign as it is after the campaign has ended because it allows advertisers to make adjustments in real time that can improve ad performance.

Before identifying the performance metrics that should be evaluated, it’s necessary to call out the metric that shouldn’t be measured. “Impressions” has been a major buzzword in the advertising industry for years, likely because it makes a media buy seem far more impressive than it is, and gives brands a false sense of comfort that their money is going further than it actually is. In reality, any media planner worth their paycheck knows that impressions are a useless metric, and may even cringe at the word. Why? Simply put, impressions are not an accurate reflection of the reach and performance of your media buy. We know that countless ad impressions aren’t even being served to real people. Impressions become irrelevant when no one engaged with your ad, clicked your banner or visited your website. Furthermore, now that most advertising platforms have videos set to auto-play with the option to skip over longer form pre-roll, impressions have become even more inflated and insignificant.

What matters far more than impressions is unique reach, or the number of individual users who were exposed to your ad. For example, if a commuter passes by your billboard to and from work every day for a week, that’s calculated as 10 impressions when in reality, one person saw your advertisement 10 times. While the number sounds impressive, impressions are really just a misrepresentation of exaggerated media performance.

By tracking the below performance metrics, your media campaign can be optimized for efficiencies in-flight, as well as benchmarked for future advertising initiatives.

By tracking the below performance metrics, your media campaign can be optimized for efficiencies in-flight, as well as benchmarked for future advertising initiatives.


  • View-Through Rate: calculated by dividing how many people watched the video by the reach of the ad. Pro tip: If this metric is low, consider rotating in a new version of creative that has a strong CTA placed at the beginning of the video
    • Video Completion Rate: measured as the percentage of video views that reached 100% completion
      • Quartile Viewing: measured as the percentage of video views that reached 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% completion. Pro tip: This metric is particularly valuable for long-form video content as it can identify when the majority of users dropped off. For instance, if the completion rates drop substantially after the 25% completion mark, consider running video that is shorter in length, such as :15 pre-roll rather than skippable :60 pre-roll
      • Cost Per Video View: calculated by dividing the total spend of the campaign by the total number of video views
      • Cost Per Completed View: calculated by dividing the total spend of the campaign by the total number of completed video views
    • Display & Search

      • Reach: the number of unique users who were served the ad 
      • Frequency: the number of times an ad is served to the same person. Pro tip: In most cases, ad frequency shouldn’t exceed 3 or 4, especially if the campaign flight is short. Frequency capping ensures that the same ads aren’t being served numerous times to the same person
      • Cost Per Click or Cost Per Action/Engagement: calculated by dividing the total spend of the campaign by the number of clicks or actions taken on the ad
      • Click-Through Rate: how many people were served the ad vs. how many people clicked on the ad
      • Engagements and Engagement Rate: how many people were served the ad vs. how many people engaged with the ad via a like, comment, share, etc. This is a popular metric predominantly used when advertising on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter
      • Website Conversions and Website Conversion Rate: how many people were exposed to your ad vs. how many people visited the website
      • Cost Per Website Conversion: calculated by dividing the total spend of the campaign by the number of website conversions
      • Cost Per Acquisition: calculated by the total spend of the campaign divided by how many new customers were generated during the campaign. In lead generation campaigns, this is identified as Cost Per Lead; in social fan acquisition campaigns, this is identified as Cost Per Like/Follower


      • Gross Rating Points (GRPs): calculated by multiplying Reach and Frequency, which is the number of individual users who are exposed to the ad multiplied by the number of times the ad will be shown
      • Target Rating Points: Gross rating points multiplied by the ratio of a specific target audience to the total audience exposed to the ad

In addition to measuring the above quantitative metrics, brands can also evaluate the effectiveness of their media advertising by conducting several qualitative tests. This type of data extraction can include customer surveys, interviews and focus groups, as well as brand awareness tests. This type of sentiment analysis identifies ad favorability, purchase intent and message recall that customers have after being exposed to an advertisement. This information is beneficial because it not only provides a brand with direct insights into the thoughts and feelings of its target audience, but also informs a brand in the way that raw data alone cannot. While more objective and less concrete, when combined with the aforementioned metrics, these insights can also help determine the overall effectiveness of a brand’s media advertising. 

Lastly, no campaign should be measured by individual channel performance metrics alone. Media's contribution to larger conversion goals should also be measured. For example, if your primary objective is to increase sales, you could track website purchases that resulted from an ad referral.

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