Close-Up: Live issue - Media planning swaps sex factor for thex-factor

Consumer collaboration through 'propagation planning' helps to form a new framework for the digital era.

When I got my first job in advertising at BMP 20 years ago, I was introduced to the subtleties of media planning by a very smart, very drunk Irishman late one night at work.

"Oivan," he said, mixing the Blarney and the Guinness, "what you have to understand is that media planning is just like sex. You take ages to prepare it, it is over in a hurry and you are left wondering which bits worked. You even ask yourself the same questions beforehand. Who are you going to do it with? When, where and how are you going to do it? And, if you look anything like you, how much is it going to cost?"

I have held on to that analogy (and overused that gag) ever since, and it has served me well. But I am now beginning to wonder if it is losing its mojo.

In the late 80s, when the analogy was drawn, even the inimitable and charming Mr Brown believed you could only have sex with one person at a time. We were operating in an analogue age, where picking up communication and passing it on to your peers was slow, uncontrolled and limited. It revolved around the one-way presentation of a message that was promulgated over a pint, a garden fence or a school desk. Undoubtedly, this was very powerful when it happened - remember The Humphreys? But it didn't happen all that often, it didn't spread all that far and it didn't get stronger as it travelled.

So, in this environment, The Joy of Sex was a fair approximation of the media planner's craft: focus on the person you are trying to hit, give them a good time and make sure they remember you. Do this in big enough numbers and you have a campaign.

All our planning, our models and our methodologies were based on that first contact, that initial hit. But that was then, and this is now.

Now, new digital technologies are handing people who want to use them power, speed, reach and scale like never before. Think of blogging, citizen journalism, the "snapperazzi", user-generated content and web authoring.

Our model has to change. It is no longer just about the people we reach, but about the people that they reach. This is increasingly evident when you think about the relative impact of word-of-mouth versus other means of communication. Some studies are ranking the effect as being ten times greater than that of a TV ad. But how do we plan for it? And how do we use it to create more powerful campaigns?

First of all, planning for this change is easy in theory. We don't just look at the aggregated "first contacts", but try to account for the subsequent collateral impressions and weight them appropriately. If we do this, we will have to think about three things: the power of a particular channel to engage people; the number of influential people it reaches; and the number of people they in turn go on to reach. In practice, this is much more difficult, but you can see where it might lead you.

For example, imagine there is a certain audience that you are after, and The Times delivers you 1,000 of them with an influence factor (i-factor) above your benchmark. At the same time, The Guardian delivers a paltry 300 of these people with an equally high i-factor. You would probably pay a lot more for The Times. But what if you then accounted for the extended audience? Let us say The Times has an extension factor (x-factor) of 1.5, but The Guardian has an x-factor of 7.5. That would mean The Times 1,000 go on to reach another 1,500 people (all through word of mouth), but The Guardian 300 go on to reach another 2,250. So, the extended audience scores are: The Times = 2,500 and The Guardian = 2,550. Who would you pay more for now?

Actually, turning this into a useful method for planning might be tricky for analogue media, but it would be a fascinating challenge. It is much easier to see how we can do this for digital media.

The second issue of how we exploit the effect is not so much about what we do with digital media, but what other people - those we call "consumers" - choose to do with it. These people are no longer the target, they are our tag-team.

We should give people tools, assets, help and permission to take our precious stuff, mash it up and start again. They should be able to do what they want with it and add their own spin. They should be invited to pull the message assets down, play with the stuff we give them and package it in a way that reflects their take on it, before passing it on to people in their network. The message gets stronger and more powerful as it moves on, not weaker and more fragmented.

There are already some smart people talking about this form of communication and are calling it "transmedia planning" (see farisyakob.typepad.com).

It is difficult to do because you have to give up total control of the creative work and be willing to collaborate with people who don't live in London or read Campaign, but it can be remarkably effective when you do let go and let them join in.

But the real play will be to combine this free-form approach to messaging with a more rigorous approach from media planning. Bring in the skills and the metrics to begin to plan for the "extended reach" of the campaign, work on the new investment models and then blend in the shared creation of the message, and we can get to somewhere really exciting. A smart chap at GNL, Steve Wing, gave me a good name for this - "propagation planning".

To propagate means "to increase by natural process; to multiply; to pass on; to transmit". It does what it says on the tin. It's the strategy that's been brought to bear on the new Sony Bravia "paint" campaign. The public were allowed to attend the shoot, and the ad's assets (film, pictures, news and stories) were released on bravia-advert.com and are freely "rippable". There are now 113 separate uploads of the film on YouTube; there have been close to 200,000 views of the full ad, and there are a number of user-generated edits. Check this one out to see propagation in action: youtube.com/watch?v=6X_vAzixa6s.

So, the sex analogy for media planning no longer holds in a digital age. Maybe it will make a return sometime in the future when shared sex will be all the vogue. You will be constantly plugged into your socio-sexual network, so that when any one of you gets lucky, all the others share the same experience, the same thrill, the same excitement, all at the same time.

When that happens, when propagation planning is the norm, then I can use the "media planning is like sex" gag again. And when that happens, can I be in Kirsten Dunst's social network, please?

- Ivan Pollard is a partner at Naked Communications.