Media Neutral Planning – is it right for a small business?

Marketing in a nutshell

Media neutral planning is not just for big businesses. There are sound reasons for small business to use this approach to get the most out of their marketing investment. To do so, you need to ditch any preconceptions or bias about which marketing media you use and go back to the fundamentals to determine your core message, understand your priorities for any marketing communications activity and then choose which media and channels to use.

Terms like “integrated communications planning” and “media neutral planning” sound like the preserve of big corporations. So what are they and how are they relevant are they to a smaller business?

Back in the 1990s, the concept of integrated marketing communications was all the rage. Rather than just focusing on one channel of communication, using multiple channels allowed businesses to create synergies between different marketing tools, to amplify their message across channels and to ensure a consistent application of messaging across all customer touchpoints.

Today, the term media neutral planning is used to describe the process of planning your marketing communications messaging without any preconceived ideas about which marketing tools and channels you will use.

Why does this matter? If you’ve ever been sold a marketing service or undertaken an activity in isolation and for any reason other than because that’s what your customer is focused on you’ll know that it matters a lot.

Small business owners shy away from a media neutral planning (MNP) approach for a range of reasons:

  • Because they have preconceived ideas about what marketing communications they should be doing.
  • Because they don’t know of or understand the wider range of options available.
  • Because they are risk averse and trying something new seems like too big a gamble.
  • Because “everyone” does XYZ… they follow the herd of their competitors.
  • Because they jump on the latest fad – or get sold it.
  • Because they rely on too broad averages assuming that because “most people” use a particular channel that will be their audience’s preference.
  • Because they are stuck in bad habits.
  • Because they have committed resources to a channel and can’t bear the thought of a sunk cost.
  • Because a planned approach seems too complicated and/or costly and they don’t understand how to go about it.

So seemingly plenty of reasons to give this approach a wide berth!

And yet we all know that the world is becoming more complex, that power is shifting to the customer, and that people lead complex lives where they engage with a whole range of different media and have many different touchpoints with the brands they deal with. So, whilst MNP seems like a complex way to approach marketing communications, it is the rational response to customers’ involvement in a complex communications ecosystem.

Small business owners need to stop asking, what is the “best” medium to communicate with prospects and customers and start thinking about what is the “best mix of media.” Better still, don’t stop at “media”; think more about channels of communication and touchpoints because every interaction is an opportunity to help achieve your business and marketing objectives.

This way they can make optimum use of their resources and avoid any unhelpful bias that might come from making assumptions about the choice of media/channel before they make their plans.

The Media Neutral Planning Process

MNP is driven by analysis and insight – not by habit. You need to step away from your usual assumptions and get back to some fundamental marketing communication principles.

Think about your business objectives

Do you want to grow your business by growing your existing share of the market or by moving into new market areas? Are you introducing new products or services? Are you even diversifying with new products into new markets?

Which markets are most attractive? What are the key characteristics of these markets? And, within these markets, who are your most strategically important customers? Why would they be interested in what you sell? How would they prefer to find out about it? What are their habits and how can you use them to get, and stay, on their radar?

The answers to these questions should be at the heart of any marketing communications plan.

Think about your core message

What is the core message that you need to convey? How does it appeal to your customers whilst reinforcing your brand values? Detailed marketing communication campaigns might well need nuanced variations on the core message but they should always support it rather than go off piste.

Think about your communications task

What is this exercise in communicating with your customers intended to do? To get them to trial a new product? To get them to attend an event? To enable them to understand more about your expertise in a specific area?

Measuring MNP effectiveness

Think about what changes you want to see and what you will measure to be happy that your objectives have been achieved. The Centre for Integrated Marketing has developed an Open Planning framework, CODAR, with five dimensions which are interdependent yet should be prioritised for an effective planned piece of marketing communications.

Idea forming: this dimension relates to the ideas, associations and belief that customer have about your brand or business. Think about how you want customers to think and believe as a result of your communication.

Building relationship feeling: this dimension is about the emotional connection you want them to feel. Do they trust you? Have an affinity with you? Feel valued by you? Or privileged to be associated with you?

Activation: this dimension is about instigating an intentional or behavioural change- to try a new product, to make a recommendation, to alter their buying patterns, whatever will help meet your business objectives.

Help: this dimension is about providing needed or perceived help about a product, policy or process. You are aiming to reduce anxiety and generate a sense of being cared for and supported to drive long term loyalty.

Product, service or environment experience: this dimension is about giving the recipient an experience – real or virtual; tangible, visual or verbal – that will help convince them to buy.

It’s common to display these five dimensions in a spider chart to demonstrate the relative priorities given to each.

Different communication campaigns might need to shift the focus but by understanding where your objectives are placed on these dimensions you can then determine how to shape your message and what you might need to measure its success.

And now it’s time to start choosing your marketing communication channels.

So, is this approach really suitable for small businesses? Here’s why it is…

  • Despite a relative lack of resources for customer research compared to big business, small businesses have a natural advantage of being closer to their customers – on the whole you can more easily have a conversation with them to find out the kind of messages – and media – that matter.
  • A planned approach means that you no longer have to waste money, time and effort learning the hard way what does and doesn’t work.
  • By judiciously selecting complimentary channels you can leverage more from your marketing investment making MNP an effective choice.
  • You can have greater confidence in your decisions, in your metrics, and in your ability to adapt to the changes of that complex marketing world.