Think of your media mix like ‘Moneyball’ if you want to find success

Marketers who ignore media channels with high ROI but little buzz could be doing themselves – and their function – a disservice.

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As detailed in the book Moneyball, the then general manager of the Oakland As Billy Beane chose players that were performing well but weren’t what baseball insiders usually picked. Players that could catch a ball, run fast, or hit a home run, but didn’t look like stars.

The Oakland As ended up winning the league on a shoestring budget, and the story was so iconic it got made into a movie. Beane was played by Brad Pitt.

It’s an outcome that’s probably not on the cards for most people whose job is to manage a marketing budget, but there are still lessons to be learnt. Because a marketing team that can pick media channels that work well but aren’t in demand has a distinct advantage.

Advertising’s longer term ROI more than double short term, study findsIn the movie, some of the best picks Beane made were older players who’d been prematurely benched. And Profit Ability 2, a recent piece of research by EssenceMediacom, Gain Theory, Wavemaker and Ebiquity suggests the same is true in media.

It identifies radio and podcasts, linear TV, and, for the audiences that still read it, print, as the ‘moneyball’ channels of the post-covid era.

Fashionable vs. moneyball

The research quantifies the benefits of different media choices and how much marketers buy of each option. The comparison of spends to measured benefits reveals which media channels are in fashion and which are underutilised.

The diagram above sets out a framework which enables classifying media channels. It’s got share of profit amongst the 141 businesses in the study on the x-axis, and share of total spend on the y-axis.

Media channels that appear above the 45 degree line are fashionable. We’re spending more on them than we should given how profitable they are. Below the 45 degree line are moneyball channels, the choices that work, but don’t attract their fair share of spend.

The chart below plots media channels onto the framework.

It reveals a bias in favour of newer, sexier, and typically online media channels. The ‘fashionable’ group – where people are spending more than they should – includes generic PPC, paid social, and display.

Cinema, online video and broadcaster video on demand are on the 45 degree line. Neither fashionable, nor unfashionable, these are broadly being bought in line with what they can deliver.

South of the line is where the opportunities lie. Because here is where there’s a bias in media buying against a channel, less demand than there should be, and so, the possibility of bagging a bargain.

It is the traditional, and typically offline channels, think radio and podcasts, print and linear TV, that appear here. And it is these channels that return the highest total profit per £1 spent of all channels in the study.

A pendulum that’s swung too far

It’s a finding that will feel weird to many marketers. It seems wrong to do more linear TV ads, when fewer people watch live telly than ever before. Stranger still to do more print, when you can hardly even buy a real life newspaper.

But it does make sense because shifts in how people consume content happen slowly, bit by bit, over time. On the other hand, we who decide on media are ‘on it’ professionals, who react to signals as fast as we can.

This evidence suggests that we’ve moved too far too fast.

Take print, as an extreme example. Over half (63%) of the businesses in the study that could be tracked over time stopped using print altogether in the last 5 years. Only those who measured a really very high ROI continued to buy it, and even those who got middle-high ROIs, nevertheless dropped print from their plans.

Something similar but less extreme happened with radio and podcasts – as well as linear TV. So now, post-covid, marketers that continue to buy these three channels are shopping in a market with low demand, and so getting good value for money.

Over-investment in online channels

At the fashionable end of the chart, the story is of over-investment in online channels.
These channels absolutely deserve their place on the plan. Paid search, paid social, and display are often cheaper for a direct response than what came before them, and in some places they’re doing a brand job too.

But we spend too much.

The idea is the bullet, data is the gunPerhaps it’s because – as the research demonstrated for paid search – these channels pay back quicker and we’re impatient for our ROI. But perhaps the reason isn’t as rational as that.

What if it’s because online channels come with measurement platforms that’ve become part of everyday life and steer us in a positive direction? Or if it’s because they come with a rep that’s always in touch? What if it’s because they’re just cooler?

As brave as Billy Beane, as smart as Pete Palmer

Pete Palmer isn’t as famous as Billy Beane, but he played an important role in the ‘Moneyball’ story. A sports statistician and encyclopaedia editor, he helped design the model that helped Billy find undervalued players.

What he saw was that baseball managers tended to pick the strategy they believed was least likely to fail, or that wouldn’t attract criticism. That led them to ignore players that would otherwise have helped them win, which, in turn, opened up the opportunity that the Oakland A’s exploited.

Coming back to marketing, a similar set of lessons apply. Research like Profit Ability 2, or better still, MMM/econometrics focused on your own business, can deliver the numbers and find you the ‘Moneyball’ media channels.

But you also have to have a Billy Beane. Someone in your team who’s brave enough to go against the grain when that’s where the wins are. Who’s enough of a hero to take one on the chin for the business. And who might even be played by Brad Pitt in the story of your success.

Grace Kite is the founder of Magic Numbers, which provides people-friendly analytics and practical training for marketers.