Media Planning Must Change in the Customer-Centric Digital Economy

This column was originally published in Advertising Age, on April 28th, 2016

“The stuff that matters in life is no longer stuff. It’s other people. It’s relationships. It’s experience,” notes Airbnb’s co-founder Brian Chesky. Airbnb singlehandedly disrupted the hospitality industry by capitalizing on this shift from “stuff” to experiences.

Transformation of businesses away from physical items has proved to be a lucrative strategy. The fastest-growing companies today — Uber, Farfetch, One Fine Stay, Spring and Airbnb — don’t have any physical products to speak of. They are all in the business of removing friction in providing services and delivering experiences to their customers.

If modern brands are built around service and experiences — and not products — then media buying and planning needs to mimic this. For brands, focusing on the volume of impressions and transactions is not enough. Consumers don’t make their decisions based on a siloed communication; they turn to brands in their moment of need and expect brands to fulfill it.

In the platform-first, network effects-focused, customer-centric digital economy, the role of media is to help consumers move seamlessly, intuitively and swiftly through brands’ service and experience journeys.

Here are five ways media agencies need to shift to help their clients position themselves better in the digital economy:

1. From retargeting to conversations. Behave like a butler, not like a stalker. Brands shouldn’t follow people around with reminders about items forgotten in the shopping cart or images of just-browsed products. Instead, they should offer value at the critical points of the customer’s decision-making journey. Conversational commerce that Everlane does is a great example of the meaningful, non-intrusive value exchange at the moment of a customer’s need. Focus your media activities on the entire customer experience, not just on building preference pre-purchase.

2. From the funnel to the customer-decision journey. The funnel metaphor reflects a media era defined by one-way brand communication. It focuses our attention and resources on building awareness and mass reach. Awareness and reach are the leftovers of the old-school media mix model that allocates marketing spend at a gross level, without taking into account the specific goals of individual touchpoints along the customer journey.

3. From hate-selling to service.Traditional media planning emphasizes “consideration” and “buy” stages of the customer decision-making journey. In the digital economy, the “evaluate” and “bond” stages are priority. Today’s consumers don’t consider a massive number of brands at the beginning of their journey; instead, they make their purchase decisions deeper in the funnel, through bonding, advocacy and loyalty. In this context, reach-focused paid media investments make less sense than utility, service, curation, native advertising and intimate community management.

4. From e-commerce to experience. The idea of digital commerce evolved from brands having purely transactional websites to having digital flagships, then digital platforms and finally to the entire digital shopping ecosystem shaped by retail aggregators, secondary retail marketplaces, publishers, digital pure players and mobile-first curators. Rather than thinking about commerce as a destination or an isolated action, we need to reconsider it in terms of a customer decision-making journey and make sure that customers have purchase opportunities at each stage.

5. From a single mass spend to continuous targeted micro-actions. Paul Graham of Y Combinator’s mantra is “do things that don’t scale.” Brian Chesky of Airbnb claims that it is better to have “a hundred people who love you, than a million people who kinda like you.” Brands build their markets not through reach, but through creating a strong personal connection with a handful of people who are their biggest fans. Creating small, intimate and curated relationships that scale is more viable than mass-awareness seeking media buys.