Re-evaluating the media mix


By Bill Reynolds

Here's a radical idea: let's try to make media planning decisions based on what works, rather than on what "everybody" thinks will work. In the rush to advertise via new media like social networks and mobile platforms, it seems that no one has stopped to ask whether the new way is really the right way for companies to reach their customers.

Perhaps it's time to take a step back and re-evaluate what we know about new and traditional media, instead of what we only think we know. In doing so, media executives might realize that traditional media like radio should be a significant part of the media mix.

Advertising is a business of perceptions. Whatever the ultimate objective of an advertising campaign, we generally must start with communication that affects perceptions (awareness, interest, preference, etc.) of whatever it is we are advertising. We expect that change to eventually drive behavior in a way that is positive, but we all know there are a multitude of other factors that will affect the outcome. So the first and most valid gauge of the success of advertising activity is how it impacts perceptions.

Given that, I suppose it's not surprising that the primary forces that drive advertising decision-making are also based on perceptions.

Billions of dollars of advertising media are budgeted primarily on the basis of our collective opinions of which media will be most effective. This has probably always been true, but after 30 years in this business, I would have thought we would be closer than we are to making these decisions based on empirical data that would reliably predict the return on media investment decisions.

Sure, we have lots of data, but most of it serves primarily to help choose between tactical options (which stations and shows to buy), rather than strategic media alternatives (TV, radio, interactive, print), or between marketing strategies (advertising, PR, consumer promotion, direct sales vs. retail channels, etc). The numbers give comfort to those who must approve advertising expenditures, but in my experience most of the data is used to support decisions that are already made based on intuition and consensus, rather than to drive those decisions in the first place.

In our media-saturated world, marketing and media have themselves become subjects of broad media interest. It seems everyone, inside our business and out, has an opinion about media and advertising. TV ratings are reported like sports scores in the newspapers; advertising campaigns are reviewed like movies and books; new technologies (that seem to arise on a weekly basis) are heralded breathlessly as completely changing the way people will consume information.

All this public interest results in a kind of feedback loop in which minor or isolated developments are magnified to volumes that seem to portend cataclysmic change. A handful of major advertisers forgo the annual network TV upfront market, and pretty soon the end of the upfront is a foregone conclusion. Someone notices that young men spend more time with videogames and the Internet than they do with broadcast TV, and it's assumed that in a year or two the rest of us will be following suit. When one of the major media companies fails to meet Wall Street expectations, it's interpreted as further confirmation that the medium itself is on its deathbed.

Such is the case with radio today. The prevailing belief seems to be that radio, along with broadcast television, newspapers and magazines, is a "traditional" medium on the way to oblivion, victim of inevitable conquest by New Media that will continue to grow at double- and triple-digit rates until they monopolize the time and attention of every one of us. Satellite radio, iPods and Internet radio attack from the outside; clutter, format consultants and ownership consolidation eat away at the audience from the inside. In this environment, many media professionals are reluctant to recommend radio for fear of being seen as fossils who have not adapted to the supposed new reality of today's media environment. The perceptions about the media, including those held by people who are not directly involved in the media industry, are thus overly influencing decisions that rightly should be based on actual results.

This is not congruent with a philosophy of Media Neutrality, which holds that all media decisions should be made from an unbiased point of view that focuses on the results delivered for the dollars expended.

In my experience, radio continues to perform well against that benchmark for many of our clients, especially those in retail and food service categories that can quickly perceive the effects when they advertise (and when they stop). At the risk of being labeled a fossil myself, I believe that radio has much to offer, including:

• Reach: For a "dying" medium, radio sure has a big audience. Over 70% of all persons 12+ listen to the radio each day; over 90% in the average week. Alone, or especially in combination with other media (TV, Internet, outdoor, newspaper – you name it) radio can significantly increase the overall reach of your campaign.

• Immediacy: "Recency theory" suggests that the most effective advertising impressions are those that occur nearest the time when the purchase decision is made. Because the largest proportion of radio listening occurs during the daytime, often while driving in the car, radio can often be the last ad exposure before the customer chooses a restaurant, retail store or other buying opportunity.

• Brand Integration: While the placement of products into the content of TV programming has been a hot topic in the past few years (like Ford in American Idol or Sears in Extreme Home Makeovers), it's old hat in radio. Radio personalities are masters at integrating brands and product benefits into their programs, and this kind of advertising has resulted in many of the medium's greatest success stories.

• Cross-Media Integration: Radio station owners are not standing still waiting for New Media to steamroll them. They realize the value of the Internet to extend reach beyond their over-the-air signals, and to strengthen the relationship they maintain with their listeners. This creates a platform for advertisers to engage their audiences in multiple ways, and in a different manner than the one-way channel of broadcast. Radio also plays well with others; very effective campaigns and promotions can be executed that combine radio with TV, out-of-home or newspapers.

• Promotions: Radio is a fertile source of promotional ideas, combining both on-air as well as interactive, events and other grass-roots tactics.

• Targeting: Program formats continue to be an effective way to segment audiences into narrower slices that share common tastes. Savvy advertisers take advantage of this by carefully choosing stations and differentiating the advertising messages they use.

• Buyer's Market: The Q1'07 advertising revenue data released by the Radio Advertising Bureau shows only a 1% increase over Q1'06, including a slight 1 percent decrease in March. Thanks to perceptions, radio costs are rising slower than other media, making it potentially an even greater value with better ROI potential than ever.

Bill is VP/Media Director at Erwin-Penland, a Hill Holliday agency based in Greenville, SC. He can be reached at [email protected] or 864-672-2844