The most efficient ad media aren't necessarily the most effective ones

Reaching your target audience takes more than low cost per thousand.

The first goal of any media planner is to make the most efficient media buy. This means the one that reaches the largest number of consumers — preferably the largest number of qualified prospects — at the lowest cost. But you can seriously undermine your brand’s sales efforts by basing everything on the numbers alone.

That’s because efficiency — the lowest cost per thousand — is no guarantee of effectiveness — getting those thousands of consumers to buy.

It turns out that some of the most efficient media are the least effective, and vice versa.

Efficient but not effective

Direct mail, for example, has long been regarded as one of the most efficient media ever. With it, you can target your audience not only geographically, but also demographically, psychographically and behaviorally as well.

In using direct mail for a West Virginia solar panel installer, our company was able to specify affluent neighborhoods, upper incomes and home values, memberships in green-cause organizations, subscriptions to Audubon and other eco-friendly magazines, and Democratic registration. The result was a 10% response rate and a 40% spike in web traffic for the client.

That response rate was an exception. Historically, direct mail response averages 1.3%. For e-mail blasts targeted with equal efficiency, it’s 1.6%. And for targeted online display ads, a clickthrough rate of 0.5% is phenomenal.

In contrast, many apparently wasteful media buys have paid for themselves many times over.

Effective but not efficient

Let’s say you own a resturant in downtown Richmond or near Innsbrook that does most of its business during weekday lunch hours. On the face of it, radio is an incredibly inefficient buy.

After all, the signals carry all the way from Charlottesville to Norfolk, and nobody sane is going to drive that far just to have lunch at your place.

But while you pay to reach thousands of people who can’t be customers, you also reach lots of people who could, and at a time and place that other media can’t — at their workplaces, where the radio might be on, or in their cars driving to work or to lunch.

Efficient? No. Effective? Yes.

In its glory days, Humana used to buy remnant television time to advertise its Medicare HMOs. As a result, commercials for a health plan available only to people over 65 were running on daytime children’s shows. Yet, despite this total waste, Humana enjoyed incredibly low costs per response.

Today, you can buy remnant time on local cable systems. You can’t specify when during the day your spots run, but you can pick which cable channels. That makes your buy a little more efficient than Humana’s — and potentially even more effective. A 30-second spot we produced for the Richmond Raiders indoor football team, running on local cable remnant time, increased season ticket sales 60% over previous year.

Sometimes, it’s worth paying for a huge waste audience just to make sure you reach a few key targets. After trying unsuccessfully to reach a half-dozen key decision-makers at Microsoft, a client of ours agreed to invest $250,000 in a cable television campaign on the system serving the Redmond, Washington, bedroom communities. As a result, they were able to land a $10 million contract.

With a $41,666,666 cost per thousand, it’s a gross undertstament to say the media buy wasn’t the least bit efficient. But with a 40:1 return on investment, it was certainly effective.

Look beyond the numbers

Cost per thousand and other measures of media efficiency are important. But they’re only a means to your goal, not your goal itself.

In planning advertising, you also need to look at who your audience is, when and where to reach them, and what media will best deliver the message to the right people at the right place and time.

That may entail paying to reach lots of people you don’t need to.

But then, which would you rather end up with — an efficient buy that fails to move the needle or a wasteful campaign that’s a huge success?