Advertising, Media and Population Mapping — Some Key Terms

TV, billboards, banners and transit shelters. Oh my.

Traditional advertising is all about trying to understand and reach people where they commute or spend time.

Therefore, understanding and mapping the target population becomes part and parcel of the job of media strategists, analysts and marketing creatives.

This involves looking at various pieces of demographic data, understanding geographic areas and using the right media vehicle for the project. All of which can be confusing.

The following list is a reference for advertising, media planning and population mapping. These terms represent key components of every successful media plan.

Statistical Areas

Statistical areas are extremely helpful references and a lot of government data, census profiling data and other data sources map to statistical areas. These provide the basis for understanding a particular audience and geography.

I’ve often used statistical areas to pull census data such as population size by age group, cultural breakdowns, income levels, languages and even transport patterns.

  • Micro statistical area or μSA is the smallest classification and covers a micropolitan area — roughly 10,000–50,000 people in an urban core area plus associated areas. Associated areas are usually linked through commuting or economic links. Hilo, Hawaii, is an example of a μSA that has a large population because the urban core supports most of Hawaii Island (Big Island).
  • Metropolitan statistical area (MSA) — MSAs have 50,000 people or more in their urban core plus associated areas. MSAs are the most common size grouping for targeted marketing purposes. For example, Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue represent one MSA.
  • Combined statistical area (CSAs) — CSAs are a combination of MSAs and μSAs that have economic ties as measured by commuting patterns. Philadelphia’s CSA is a good example; it includes Philadelphia, Reading and Camden MSA’s because people often live outside the city and commute to Philadelphia for work. CSAs are common for large out-of-home marketing campaigns or situations where the media is targeting a broad area.

Media Market Areas

TV and radio media rely on media market areas for targeted media buys. The most common of these is called DMAs or Designated Market Areas.

A lot of media insights studies will map back to DMAs or Metro Survey Areas to help marketers plan and execute media buys.

  • Designated Market Area (DMA) — DMAs are your stock-standard media area. They are the workhorse of the media buying industry. DMA is a designated area covered by particular television stations. DMAs are updated annually by Nielsen. They are used for both buying media and also for understanding how TV campaigns are performing. For example, metrics like ad buying and web traffic can be tied to DMA to understand campaign impact.
  • Metro Survey Areas correspond to the Metropolitan Statistical Areas (see above). These are often used for radio media buys to target clusters of the population. The fact that they both have the acronym MSA is unfortunate and it’s worth clearly labelling media plans to avoid confusion.

Reach, Frequency and Rating Points

There is often confusion around the fundamental media measurement terms like reach, frequency and rating points. Every good media plan is based on a clear understanding and accurate prediction of metrics like reach, penetration and TRPs (for TV).

Here are some definitions on each.

  • Reach — Reach is the total percentage of a target audience who are exposed to a commercial at least once throughout a campaign period. This figure represent unduplicated audience exposure, aka unique viewers reached. Reach can be notoriously hard to calculate with certain media like billboards but is critical input to any media strategy.
  • Penetration — A close cousin of reach, penetration is the percentage of total homes or people in a give area who own or access a particular media channel. For example, the penetration of cable TV in the US is X% of US households. Penetration indicates whether a media channel is limited to a particular group or portion of the target population.
  • Frequency — Frequency describes the average number of times that a person within the target audience has had the opportunity to see an advertisement over the campaign period. There is often a minimum frequency level needed to ‘break through’ (see Effective Frequency). Learning or updating this number should be a foundational component of marketing analytics.
  • Effective Frequency — Effective Frequency is the minimum number of times a communication must be exposed to a viewer to positively impact their behavior. There is no golden rule for effective frequency. It varies by: brand, industry, seasonality, competition and media channel.
  • Gross Rating Points (GRPs) — GRPs are common ways to look at the exposures of media like TV. GRPs are also commonly misunderstood as impact. GRPs are basically calculated as the percent reach of target market multiplied by exposures. So if you reach 50% of your target population and they each get 4 exposures, you have a 200 GRPs. One thing to note — this is expected exposure because you can never be sure someone watched your ad (they might have been fiddling with their phone). GRPs are also meaningless with the context of reach and exposures because you can increase either one and increase your GRPs in turn. GRPs are a top-line measurement of exposure but can be misleading unless the media is achieving a consistent reach percent of the target population.
  • Target Rating Points (TRPs) — TRPs are similar to GRPs but refine the audience to match the target population. For example, a GRP may represent 18–65 year olds, a TRP may refine that down to exposures by 18–35 year old’s as the target group. In this example you might buy 150 GRPs but you know that half the viewers are your target audience (18–35 year olds) so your TRPs are actually 75.
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