5 steps for buying media during a pandemic

5 steps for buying media during a pandemic
By Kelly Brentzel and Ashli Henry
Sep 17, 2020

What are the next steps for brands as they evolve their media buying approach during a global pandemic?

Media buying is an art and a science. During a global pandemic, it also becomes a lesson in patience, flexibility, and adaptability.

Typically, when buying media and implementing advertising campaigns, there are two scenarios around which to navigate—controlled and crisis. These two scenarios impact paid media strategies, recommendations, and performance expectations. When we examine the big picture, media planners and buyers account for both controlled and crisis activities that can severely impact short-term activity.

What constitutes controlled versus crisis?

Controlled factors include:

  • Regular occurrences (such as peak seasonality), holidays (like Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and Black Friday) and any other long term, recurring events that can be planned for in advance (like back-to-school or spring break seasons).
  • Events like elections. Every year with a presidential election includes an incredibly active political window that can impact advertising campaigns from late June until early November.

During controlled scenarios, inventory is limited and rates are inflated to meet demand. This often applies to placements such as television spots or billboards, and within the offline media space where inventory is finite. Creativity, flexibility, relationship leveraging, and prime negotiating skills come into play when executing advertising campaigns in order to meet and exceed client expectations.

Crisis scenarios include:

  • Unknown variables
  • Fragmented media space
  • Communities of sickness, fear, and death
  • Social distancing and stay-at-home orders
  • Protests against racial injustice
  • New developments peppering the marketplace, such as increased homeschooling, online education, and fanless sporting events
  • National debates on how to handle the pandemic and changing rules in each state, each locality, and each neighborhood

A crisis scenario such as the coronavirus pandemic creates dramatic changes in every corner of the advertising industry—from consumers, to marketers and brands, to the media. Within months, the media consumption landscape experienced the type of rapid change usually seen over the course of 3-5 years.

What does the market look like right now?

Consumers are staying home and limiting interaction in large-audience public places. School has returned in primarily virtual environments. Media streaming adoption has accelerated; screen time and digital channel use has increased while traditional channels (print and radio) have decreased. Marketers are modifying their production schedules, product launches, and addressing supply and demand. Industrywide marketers are pausing, postponing, or entirely cancelling campaign efforts as a result of financial hardship, employee health and wellness concerns, distribution delays, or uncertainty. The marketing industry is shifting because of the large impact on vendors, providing more opportunities for cost savings, creative advertising plans, and innovative campaigns. According to an IAB survey, 98% of advertising sellers currently anticipate U.S. ad sales revenue will decrease as a result of the pandemic.

Buying media during the coronavirus pandemic has provided a crash course in advertising during times of unrest. But what does this all mean for immediate media buy planning and future campaign efforts? We advise our clients to run headfirst into the new normal. Rather than immediately cutting paid media campaigns when crisis situations arise, it’s important to first gain an understanding of the new circumstances, apply the new learnings, adapt for changing situations across geographies, and develop a clear plan to navigate through these changing environments.

For example, this has meant maintaining a paid media presence for our Fortune 100 Healthcare client that provides insurance plans for typically lower income individuals. This resulted in our client seeing a large uptick in site traffic and enrollments. We’ve also advised clients who operate in the energy efficiency space to maintain their paid media spend, especially those promoting cost-savings programs. As many families are staying home, limiting travel, working from home, and now doing virtual school, they are looking to save money—thereby making energy efficiency programs more attractive.

What are the next steps for brands as they evolve their media buying approach?

Based on what we’ve seen in the market, we advise taking the following steps:

  • Reassessing current media plans.
    Consider these questions: Is the current media mix still valid? How can the new/current media consumption trends be leveraged? Are the current audiences still the right audiences?
  • Reviewing plan implementation.
    Work to explore new targeting opportunities, review search keywords and phrases, and test whether trending contextual environments are appropriate and conducive to engagement.
  • Developing a market reentry strategy.
    A phased approach quickens market reentry. Digital’s quick launch can begin to reengage consumers with other channels layered in as they are available. Specifically, during the pandemic, this takes advantage of people’s increased online usage and online information-seeking behaviors.
  • Re-evaluating key performance indicators (KPI).
    With a crisis, ensure that pre-established KPIs are still valid and achievable. And if they are not— due to the shifts in media mix and audience insights—adjust and refine the KPIs.
  • Recognizing that some changes could be permanent.
    Moving forward, establish mutually agreeable cancellation terms. It’s impossible to predict movement of events like the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, it’s important to try to protect your media buys as much as possible.

Media buying as we knew it may never come back. But the lessons we learn during this time can be invaluable in how we tackle campaigns in the future. Ultimately, it's important to listen, be empathetic, be realistic, and be transparent. No one is shielded from the impact of unprecedented events or circumstances. The more flexible and adaptable a brand and media buying partners can be, the more we all will benefit from being able to share our messages.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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Meet the authors
  1. Kelly Brentzel, Director, Media
  2. Ashli Henry
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