Imagine this: Your target audience can’t stop talking about one of your ads.
Because they all saw it at the right time and in the right place.
That’s the impact of media planning.
Media planning is an integral part of the digital marketing ecosystem.
This post provides an introduction to media planning and detailed step-by-step instructions that’ll increase your knowledge about media planning—and your chances of marketing success.
Let’s dig in.
What Is Media Planning?
Media planning is the process of determining how, when, and where your ads are shown to a targeted audience. Knowing the why behind your media plan will help you maximize your ad campaign’s reach.
A media plan guides the media planning process. Think of it as a blueprint for your campaign efforts.
Your media plan should include:
- Target audience
- Selection of media channels
- Resource allocation
- Scheduling strategy for each chosen media vehicle
We’ll explore each in more detail in the instructions later on.
Why Do You Need a Media Plan?
Media planning helps the right customers see your ads in the right space, date, and time. And when done right, media planning can radically maximize your impact.
A traditional media plan enables you to:
- Reach your target audience
- Determine when to publish ads
- Decide which media channels to use
- Pick the optimal frequency of ads
- And, importantly, stay on budget
A (stellar!) media plan also enables you to:
- Improve your overall brand awareness
- Allocate resources efficiently and cost-effectively
- Maximize engagement with your target audience
- Build consistency with your marketing messaging
- Develop deeper insights into your target audience
- Measure the effectiveness of your media planning
- Gain a competitive advantage in your market
Types of Media
There are three fundamental types of media: paid media, earned media, and owned media.
Each has the common goal of engaging with your target audience, but they achieve this through different means.
Let’s take a look.
Paid media is ad content placed within marketing channels owned by external media entities (e.g., an ad in an online publication like Fortune, like in the example below) in exchange for a fee.
Owned media is the placement of ad content within channels the advertiser wholly owns (e.g., Forbes marketing its products on their site, as seen below).
Earned media is the accumulation of organic brand mentions without paid promotion. One of the most common types of earned media is online reviews, like the example below. Other earned media can include organic exposure in the press or social media.
Types of Media Channels
Media channels traditionally fall into offline and online channels.
- Offline media channels include TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and out-of-home advertising (such as billboards and wayfinding)
- Online media channels include social media, online video, and digital advertising (such as display and native ads)
While offline media can be a lucrative avenue for many advertisers, today we’re focusing on how to build a plan for online media channels.
Let’s take a look at each step.
How to Create a Media Plan in 10 Steps
Here we lay out 10 steps to create an effective media plan, whether you’re a media newbie or a media buff.
1. Define Campaign Goals and KPIs
To achieve results, you need to know what you want to achieve. So first, define your goal campaigns and key performance metrics (KPIs) before you select media or create an ad.
Begin by aligning your campaign goals to your business objectives, from increasing brand awareness to generating sales. Examples of campaign goals include:
- Increase brand awareness from 25% to 40% among our target audience within the next six months
- Achieve a 30% growth in online sales of our flagship product within the first quarter of the year compared to the prior year
- Generate 400+ qualified leads for our upcoming product launch within the first six months of launch
Then, select your KPIs based on your objective.
For instance, if your objective is to increase brand awareness, your KPIs could focus on tracking impressions and ad impression share.
If your objective is to increase online sales (like in the second example), your KPIs could include tracking product reviews (aka earned media) and click-through rates for online ads that lead to the product page.
Alternatively, if your objective is to generate leads, your KPIs could include tracking your cost-per-acquisition and the click-through rates for online ads that lead to a product demo.
Use your KPIs to determine if you’re on track to achieve campaign goals, and allow for flexibility in your media plan if your KPIs falter. (More on this later.)
2. Identify Your Target Audience
Before you start creating ads, you need to know who you’re trying to reach.
Set a specific target audience (or target market) to ensure your media campaign reaches the people most likely to be interested in your product, service, or content.
Your target audience could be defined using a mixture of:
- Demographics (e.g., gender and age)
- Socioeconomics (e.g., education level and job status)
- Media affinity (e.g., what blogs they visit and what apps they use)
- Other defining characteristics
Your target audience for your media campaign could mirror your company’s overall target audience, hyperfocus on a specific niche, or expand into a new market.
Use the tools at your disposal to help you define your target audience.
Google Analytics has a free version of GA4 that companies can use to understand their customers better. You can use the user attributes overview report to see summarized data about the people who use your site or app, such as age, gender, and location.
You can go even deeper with tools like Semrush’s Audience Intelligence app, which provides key insights into various social consumer segments, allowing you to keenly understand your audiences to target them more effectively.
Access nine sections of in-depth data on your audience in each Audience Intelligence report, including demographics, socioeconomics, influencers and brands, interests, media affinity, content, personality, buying mindset, and online habits.
The app also provides a comparison baseline for every audience data point. Compare this number against the national or global average. Or use the baseline to identify trends unique to your audience.
Try it for yourself. Create clearer audience targets in the Semrush App Center.
3. Perform Competitive Research
No one really likes thinking about their competition, but most do like thinking about beating them. Think of performing competitive intelligence as giving you a competitive advantage.
Consider your objectives and KPIs to decide what competitive research you need to do. This could include:
- Ad placements
- Average spend
- Audience segments
- Estimated impressions
- Media channels used
- Media types used
- Share of voice
For example, if you plan to run a campaign on social media to promote a new product feature, look at the format of ads your competitors use (e.g., reels, graphics, carousels, video, etc.)
Consider, too, what social media platforms they use, what day and time they post, what hashtags they use, how long their captions are, if they use any influencers, etc.
Knowing what media strategy and distribution your competitors use will help you make smarter decisions so that your media plan surpasses theirs.
Tools like AdClarity, available from the Semrush App Center, optimize this competitive research by enabling you to analyze your competitors’ digital campaigns and identify top-performing publishers, advertisers, ad networks, and agencies.
For example, you can search for a keyword related to your product or service and see the top ads to explore what audiences interacted with most.
You can also use competitive intelligence to define your ad creative and placement by using the app to see social ad types and video placements used by advertisers and publishers.
Knowing more about your competitors helps you not only benchmark against them but also make more profitable decisions so your media plan propels you to the head of the pack.
4. Set a Budget
The right budget will get you the right results—and make your ad dollars work for you.
That might sound too good to be true, as setting a budget can sometimes feel like a guessing game if you don’t have the right intel.
Avoid the guesswork (and relieve some of the natural budgeting anxiety) by understanding what the market is doing. And feel free to use some of our data from a recent benchmark study to help you.
Debating what platforms to put your budget toward? Check out the average monthly ad spend distribution for each.
Trying to decide how to best distribute funds between channels? Check out the stats.
5. Determine Your Media Mix
Next, select your media mix: the combination of media used in an ad campaign, including each medium’s allocated ad budget.
But good news! You’ve already done a lot of the hard work, making this next part easier.
Your competitive research gives you an indication of what media your competitors use (and how that’s performing). The benchmark data on ad spending gives you an indication of what channels and platforms are most cost-effective.
And your target audience gives you insight into your audience’s characteristics, preferences, and behavior patterns.
Based on all you’ve collected, you have the intel you need to determine what channels will help you achieve your objectives.
Given we’re focusing on digital media planning, here’s a sample of what a media mix could look like for a B2B company looking to promote an upcoming webinar:
- Social media (60% of the budget)
- Focus: LinkedIn ads
- Online video (20% of the budget)
- Focus: Mid-roll ads on YouTube
- Display advertising (20% of the budget)
- Focus: Display ads on B2B trades
Consider what action you want your target audience to take to determine your media mix and use the data to allocate your media budget accordingly.
You can also use the Channels Distribution feature in AdClarity to see a breakdown of display, video, and social ad distribution for your competitors’ domains.
6. Develop a Media Strategy
Now, it’s time to get savvy. Creating your custom media strategy will significantly depend on your industry and campaign goals, but these methods can help you define your go-to approach.
- Select your media assets. Each platform has different ad options you’ll need to choose from. Publishers have varying display ad choices, from banner ads to lightbox displays. Each social app also has varying visual options, from static graphics to carousels to videos.
- Lean into your target audience’s media habits and behavior patterns to decide what types of ads your creative asset(s) should be.
- Choose your ad placement. Be strategic about where to put your ads on each channel. Refer back to your earlier research for insight.
If you plan to place a video ad on YouTube, use AdClarity to assess top YouTube channels to consider.
And if your ad is going on social media, the “Social networks” widget within AdClarity shows you the analysis of a single advertiser domain on the social channel.
- Determine your ad creative (aka imagery, design, and content). Work closely with your copywriters to identify what copy will resonate with your audience and get them to engage with your ad. (Psst—check out our copywriting tips to jazz up your copy!)
- Work closely with your designers to ensure your ad visually speaks to your audience and works well with each chosen platform (including sizing). And remember that clear and consistent messaging across your media campaign will be your key to success.
- Consider all media types. Remember when we talked about the three media types (paid, owned, and earned)? Put your knowledge into practice by deciding how much your ad or ad campaign will lean into each to reach your objectives.
- For example, if one of your KPIs was increasing your reviews (aka earned media), consider what assets to create and what messaging to include to get customers to review your product or service.
7. Create a Media Schedule
Feel that? That’s called clarity. And we’re almost ready to hit “go” on your media plan.
But first, create a media schedule to hone in on when and how often your target audience will see your ads. You’ll also need to engage with media owners at this stage to get a sense of their available inventory.
Start by creating a timeline for your media plan, including your media flight (the defined period when an ad or ad campaign is active and visible to its target audience), and attach a budget to it.
Use competitive intelligence to pick the right time for your campaign by looking for trends among competitors and publishers.
But note that your campaign objectives will greatly determine your media flight. For instance, if you want to get 300 leads within three months, you wouldn’t choose a media flight that is six months long, right? Right.
You’ll also need to determine the frequency of your ad or ad campaign, or how often you want your target audience to see your ad. Our tip? Plan ahead to allow for adjustments on the road ahead.
Media Plan Example + Template
To get a head start, download free budgeting media plan templates from Smartsheet, including an annual media plan template, as seen here:
8. Execute the Media Plan
You’ve made it! It’s time to hit “go” on your media plan.
This means launching your campaigns in your various ad platforms and scheduling ads for approved dates and times.
While we’re not at the finish line yet, it took a lot of hard work to get here. It’s OK to take a moment and appreciate that.
9. Monitor and Optimize
Now that your ad campaign has launched, don’t take your eyes off it.
Observe how your campaign is performing and make adjustments as needed, from your frequency to even your messaging. Being agile will get you further in a changing media landscape.
For example, below is a LinkedIn ad that, according to them, performed well. Now, imagine you had two versions of this ad running: one where the button says “Download here” (like below) and another that says “Get the guide.”
What if your data shows that the “Download here” ad performs significantly better? Perhaps you nix the other ad and reallocate the budget to the messaging with the higher performance.
In another situation, Wednesdays get the highest engagement across your media mix. You could move some budget from other days of the week to capitalize on Wednesday’s traction.
Needing to adjust your media plan does not mean your original plan failed. Optimization is part of the process and will get you closer to your objectives.
10. Measure Results and Adjust
The time has come to reap the rewards—and plan for next time!
Return to your original objectives and KPIs, then dive into your data trove to see how your media plan performed.
Looking at the examples from Step 1, here’s how results could look:
- Example Objective 1: Increase brand awareness from 25% to 40% among our target audience within the next six months.
- Example Results 1: We increased brand awareness from 25% to 39% among our target market over the last six months, hitting just under our goal of 40%.
- Example Objective 2: Achieve a 30% growth in online sales of our flagship product within the first quarter of the year compared to the prior year.
- Example Results 2: We achieved a 45% growth in online sales of our flagship produced within the first quarter, 15% higher than our intended goal of 30%.
Explore your data to understand what your audience engaged with most and what worked best so you can capitalize on these trends in your next media campaign.
Of course, the reality is that some results will be less than ideal. Looking at the third example from Step 1, here’s an alternate reality:
- Example Objective 3: Generate 400+ qualified leads for our upcoming product launch within the first six months of launch.
- Example Results 3: We generated 333 qualified leads within the first six months of the launch of Product X, -16.75% less than our goal of 400.
In this case, all is not lost. Use the data from this campaign to make different choices in the next campaign. Identify the campaign’s weaknesses and look for opportunity areas to educate future decisions.
Remember, every media campaign is a win because it gives you further insights into your target audience—including what they will and won’t engage with.
Overcome Common Media Planning Challenges
Now that you know how to create a media plan, get familiar with potential hurdles to avoid (and how to overcome them).
Stay Up to Date with a Changing Media Landscape
The media landscape is ever-evolving.
Just think of social media! Facebook sold the first paid social media ad in 2005. Less than 20 years later, social media ad spending stood at about $230 billion and is expected to surpass $300 billion by 2024.
As publishers continue to get more creative about ad buying options, new media formats are introduced (like YouTube Shorts and Instagram Stories), and new platforms like TikTok and BeReel are launched, there’s always something new.
Keep up with the changing media landscape to capitalize on the developments. Our tips? Follow media-specific advertising awards like Digiday to see what’s winning. And subscribe to industry trade newsletters like Marketing Brew for the latest news.
Avoid Media Planning Fatigue with Automated Support
Marketing—and media planning especially—can be fatiguing. According to a Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) survey, 52% of marketers fear burning out.
So how do you avoid undue stress as a marketer and media planner? Define your responsibilities and assess what can be automated, because not everything should be manual.
For instance, tools like Audience Intelligence help you get deep audience research in one place (versus checking channels by hand). In minutes, you can identify untapped audiences (instead of doing guesswork) and see how your audience interacts with your competitors (instead of manually reviewing their comments).
Use automation to help you work smarter—and get results easier.
Integrate Media Planning into the Wider Marketing Plan
Avoid letting your media planning or media team fall into a silo.
Instead, ensure your media plan aligns with your organization’s larger marketing plan and that both work simultaneously to achieve business goals.
This cohesion will ensure that all marketing efforts are consistent—and can more consistently connect with your target audience.
Know the Terminology: Media Planning Glossary
Get on a first-name basis with common media planning terms so marketing jargon never prevents you from seeing results.
- Ad Buy: acquiring ad space or time on various media channels intended to reach a specified target audience.
- Ad Impressions Share: the percentage of ad impressions an ad or ad campaign generated compared to the total possible impressions within a media channel.
- Ad Inventory: the total stock of available ad space or time slots media platforms have to offer advertisers.
- Ad Placement: the ad spaces available, including size, type, and location (i.e., where a display ad goes on a website or a print ad is placed in a newspaper).
- Click-Through Rate (CTR): a metric measuring the effectiveness of a digital ad or ad campaign on a particular site, based on the number of users who clicked on a defined link.
- Competitive Intelligence: gathering data about competitors’ marketing and business activities to help inform decision-making in media planning—and beyond.
- Cost Per Acquisition (CPA): a metric quantifying an advertiser's total cost to acquire a new customer or lead through a media campaign.
- Cost Per Click (CPC): the monetary amount an advertiser spends to get an ad clicked.
- Dayparting: a strategy of scheduling ads or ad campaigns to run during particular times or days of the week to reach a target audience effectively.
- Frequency: the average number of times someone was exposed to an ad or ad campaign over a defined period.
- Gross Rating Points (GRP): the audience size reached by an ad or ad campaign, calculated by multiplying the reach (expressed as a decimal) by the frequency.
- Impressions: the total number of times an ad or ad campaign was displayed.
- Impressions Share: a metric that measures how effectively an ad campaign reaches its target audience compared to the total potential impressions.
- Media Budget: the allocated funds for an ad or ad campaign across various channels within a specific time frame.
- Media Buy: acquiring ad space or time on various media channels intended to reach a specified target audience.
- Media Creative: an ad's actual imagery, design, and content.
- Media Research: examining available data—from media consumption to audience behavior to competitive analysis—to inform media planning.
- Media Schedule: a timetable detailing when and where advertisements will appear across varying media channels to maximize impact.
- Media Vehicle: a specific TV program, website, magazine, radio station, etc. used to carry an ad or ad campaign (e.g., Cosmopolitan is a media vehicle).
- Return on Investment (ROI): a metric assessing the effectiveness and profitability of ad efforts by taking net profits, dividing them by the investment made, and calculating a percentage.
Create an Epic Media Plan
You made it. You know the essentials of media planning, the different types of media, and what steps to take to get results that’ll make your competitors jealous (and your team proud).
Now you’re ready to create an epic media plan that maximizes engagement with your target audience, gives you a competitive advantage in your industry, and cost-effectively gets your message out there.
The best thing you could do next is to begin.
As you go, remember that every campaign will give you new insight to improve the next one and then the next one.
And when you need more support in the meantime, access your secret media planning weapons in the Semrush App Center.