What Is Media Buying? Overview and How It Works

Think of every ad you’ve seen today. Where were they? Depending on your day’s activities, you might have spotted advertising on billboards, broadcast television, social media channels, websites, physical newspapers, search results, or any number of media outlets. Now, consider the fact that each of those ads represents a transaction between a company (the advertiser) and an ad vendor (such as a platform, media outlet, or advertising agency).

Media buying handles the full scope of purchasing and placing these diverse ad types. A skilled media buyer can help you determine where to place ads, secure a cost-effective and goal-oriented media mix, execute campaigns, and use performance data to optimize results.

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What is media buying?

Media buying refers to the process of purchasing ad space for a company’s marketing campaigns, covering both traditional and digital media placements. The two main types of media buying are:

  1. Direct media buying. Direct media buying involves purchasing advertising space from individual media companies, such as publishing companies or ad vendors. For example, a media buyer might reach out to a physical newspaper or website, request a media kit, and select and purchase ad options. You can secure both traditional and digital media placements with direct media buying.
  2. Programmatic media buying. Programmatic buying involves purchasing digital ads with the help of an automated ad-buying platform. Instead of selecting a single media outlet, a media buyer will sign up with a demand side platform (DSP) and specify campaign details. The DSP then purchases ad inventory on an ad exchange or through an ad network using a process known as real-time bidding.

How is media planning different from media buying?

There are a few differences to note between these two aspects of marketing.

Media planning  involves conducting media research and using your business’s marketing goals, marketing budget, target audience information, and key campaign messages to create a media plan for a specific marketing initiative or campaign. Your media plan will determine your campaign’s media mix and identify key channels for paid media, owned media, and earned media tactics.

Once your media plan is ready, your media planner will hand it off to your company’s media buyer, who is responsible for executing key elements of the paid media portion of the plan. Media buying focuses on selecting and vetting media outlets and purchasing ad space. A media buyer’s job also includes negotiating with vendors, managing campaign deadlines, trafficking ad placements to vendors, and monitoring campaign performance.

Some companies employ separate media planning teams and media buying teams who work together to  plan campaigns. Small businesses might delegate both tasks to the same member of a marketing or media team.

Overview of the media buying process

1. Review media plan

Review your media plan, keeping the campaign’s target audiences, marketing goals, ad spend budget, key performance indicators (KPIs), and target media mix in mind. Although you won’t finalize the ad creative until later in the process, start considering what types of ads you’d like to run. For example, if you plan on running video ads, target online publications that allow the format.

2. Develop target list

Develop a list of media outlets, ad agencies, and ad vendors under consideration. If you’re considering both direct and programmatic placements, you might also list media buying platforms here and note pricing.

3. Develop and send RFPs

An RFP (or request for proposal) can help you simplify the ad-buying process by putting some of the work on media outlets and ad agencies. Your RFP will include advertising campaign details such as your goals, target audiences, approximate budget, KPIs, and a response deadline. Vendors will respond with a tailored campaign proposal based on these specific goals.

4. Evaluate options and purchase media

Gather and review the RFP responses, organizing data points such as tactic, audience, cost, and estimated KPI performance into a spreadsheet. Although media buyers don’t typically send RFPs to media buying platforms or other media buying tool providers, including these vendors in your target list can help you compare the cost of these options to direct placements or agency contracts.

Once you’ve organized your data, compare options and select a cost-effective set of ad placements, making sure your selected media mix aligns with the specifications in your media plan.

5. Send insertion orders

An insertion order (IO) is the legal agreement between an ad vendor and the organization placing an ad. It will include the cost, run dates, add specifications, and information about KPIs (if applicable). Create and send an IO for each media placement.

6. Develop creative

Coordinate with your account managers and creative team to develop the creative assets and place your ads with vendors according to the deadlines specified in your IO.

7. Track results

Monitor campaign performance data—such as click-through rates and conversions—and make adjustments to your creative assets to optimize the results. If your vendor guaranteed certain performance metrics (like impressions), double-check that your campaigns deliver on the promise. If they don’t, reach out to your vendor to negotiate a make-good.

3 tips for effective media buying

  1. Plan around KPIs
  2. Leverage RFPs
  3. Consider media buying agencies

Media buying is a time-intensive process. These tips can help you increase efficiency and optimize returns on your ad spend:

1. Plan around KPIs

Comparing and tracking ad performance can be tricky. To make it easier, select ad placements for which you can effectively track the KPIs specified in your media plan and confirm how and when ad vendors will provide performance data. Then set calendar reminders that coincide with the reporting periods for each ad vendor.

2. Leverage RFPs

One of the tricky things about media buying is that each ad vendor will organize proposal information differently. Some will report cost per click, others total campaign cost, and still others cost per day. The same is true of performance data; vendors might report an estimated number of impressions, clicks, deliveries, or other campaign performance metrics.

For a media buyer, this can feel like comparing apples to oranges to pigeon eggs, making it challenging to analyze campaign options. A thoughtful RFP can simplify that media buying process. Although it isn’t always possible to reduce a diverse set of metrics to apples-to-apples comparisons, setting RFP parameters can speed things up.

3. Consider media buying agencies

Advertising agencies and media buying agencies employ experienced media buyers. Some also offer media planning services. They can help with media plan strategy, vendor selection, performance tracking, and even offer feedback on ad creative or insights into underperforming campaigns. Because agencies purchase a large volume of ads, they can also exercise more leverage in negotiating media buys than an individual media buyer can.

Evaluate your team’s skills and capacity and consider using an advertising or media buying agency to take on all or part of the media buying process.

Media buying FAQ

What types of media can be bought through media buying?

Paid media placements can include traditional media options such as print, TV, and radio ads, billboards, direct mail campaigns, and digital media placements such as banner ads, paid search ads, video advertising, and sponsored content.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when buying media?

Common media buying mistakes include:

  • Not tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) or tracking the wrong KPIs
  • Not sufficiently diversifying your media mix
  • Diversifying your media mix too much
  • Spending too little (or too much)
  • Not confirming a vendor’s execution of a purchase agreement
  • Not aligning media buys with strategic recommendations

What role does data play in modern media buying?

Data has two critical functions for the modern media buying process:

  1. Performance. Media buyers use performance data—like click-through rates, conversions, and other marketing analytics—to evaluate campaign performance and optimize results.
  2. Cost. Media buying platforms use data to place programmatic ads, selecting the best available ad mix for a specific campaign for the lowest possible cost.