Being There

Today’s Marketer Isn’t Choosing Between DSPs, RTB, and Guaranteed Buys. He Wants it All.

The brave new world of digital display advertising seemingly offers it all. Using the latest and greatest platforms, marketers can access technology that enables them to identify their product’s audience, and reach them at the very moment they are ready to make a purchasing decision. With hundreds of already identified cookies floating out on the web, packed full of personal information, I can find a “42 year-old male with a household income greater than $200,000, who is coming off a GM vehicle lease” and sell him financial services by offering up a dynamically generated banner ad at the very moment he is engaged in financial research. Welcome to the world of DSPs (Demand-Side Platforms), real time bidding (RTB), dynamic creative, and all the 3rd party data you can shake a stick at. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s certainly good for advertisers. Since the advent of “ROI” smart marketers have always looked to technology to find better audiences and serve them ads. That has been true since the first direct mail marketing list was produced, and is still true today. It is the reason Google AdWords gets the lion’s share of digital dough, and you can be sure the next huge wave of addressable advertising (location-targeted mobile ads, perhaps?) comes online in a significant way. For the direct marketer that needs to reach an audience of buyers at scale, this will never go away. Yet, I wonder how much this technology which promises to bring us closer to our true audience is truly achieving that goal. For the brand advertiser looking to build affinity with a certain user, is true context being ignored?

Let me explain what I mean by “true context.” Rather than just looking at what kind of text is on the webpage at the of the visit (context in the current, technical, sense), why aren’t we still concerned with user engagement, which includes not only the time a user spends on the content itself (measureable), but the quality of that content, and the user’s affinity for the brand that produces that content? The latter two metrics are hard to measure, but extremely valuable. There is a reason why the Wall Street Journal commands outsized CPMs, and it’s not only the fact that they have a great audience of high income businesspeople. It also has a lot to do with the fact that people simply love the Journal and, more importantly, they trust the Journal’s content implicitly. This is extremely hard to measure, and impossible to buy at scale in the non-guaranteed space.

Maybe Mindset data added to 24/7’s  inventory can help me buy into an audience where “assertive” people are “52% more likely to be an entrepreneur,” but where am I reaching these people, and what might be their mindset at the time I serve them an ad? Back in the days when people still read business magazines you knew that, by placing a 1/3-page vertical for enterprise software alongside the monthly IT procurement column, you were guaranteed that a good Systems Admin decision maker would be spending some quality time on a page that featured your messaging. More importantly, your prospect was reading highly relevant content while he was in a business frame of mind—with a trusted content source that he subscribed to. Many of the demand-side platforms purport to be able to leverage proprietary and third party data to bring you those users in a brand-safe environment, but the promises are currently just that.

Having to choose between guaranteed and continuously-served display inventory is a straw man argument set up by the providers in the space, advocating for their own platforms. In reality, there is room for all types of buying for the modern banner advertiser, and the three main buckets that agencies seem to place buys in are:

–          Deep and Direct: No exchange or network can offer the power and pure branding play that comes with buying a custom sponsorship on a premium web property. Agencies that have quality brands always make room for affinity publishers that are a good match for brands. Advertisers will always find real value in deep engagements with publishers, through homepage takeovers, sweepstakes, sponsored content, “advertorials,” and everything in between. These ad engagements require the one thing technology cannot provide: creativity. It is hard to see a day when brand advertisers will ever give up the practice of buying deep and direct. In this segment, the mutual fund marketer may work with a publisher to build a co-branded “retirement calculator” and offer educational videos related to investment strategy.

–          Premium Mid-Tail: Not many marketers have committed to exploring the middle range of content sites on the web, but this segment is worth exploring. If you are looking to reach investors online, it’s damn easy to call WSJ.com and call it a day, but the smart marketer can do better. Instead of paying sky-high CPMs on “name” sites, why not engage with brand-safe mid-tail sites like RagingBull, SeekingAlpha, or InvestorPlace that deliver the same audience in a highly engaged environment? It’s essentially the difference between a department store and a boutique. The merchandise (audience) may be similar, but your chances of delivering a more impactful brand experience are always better in a less crowded (less uniques) environment. And the pricing and availability is much easier to work with.  In this scenario, the mutual fund advertiser may select the top 10 mid-tier financial sites and use standard Flash banners to engage with the right demographic audience that’s engaged in investment content.

–         Long Tail: Of course there is always the need to go wide and cheap. It always surprises me that there is so much written about Superbowl ad costs. At an average $30 CPM, this is expensive, but how else are you going to reach 90 million people at the same time? Plus, compared to some newspaper rates, the Superbowl looks cheap. Today’s web marketer is much luckier. With the variety of networks and exchanges out there, you can go extremely wide for a lot less money. Decent reach plays start at $.50 CPMs, and reach with all the bells and whistles (behavioral, geotargeted, contextual, re-targeted) rarely exceeds $10. This type of advertising has been around forever, and will never go away. Technology will continue to drive down the cost of identifying and reaching audience segments, and this is something positive for the industry. In this scenario, a marketer leverages the power of real-time ad serving and third party data, to deliver a targeted, dynamic ad to an “investment intender” based on his cookie profile and the page context.

Guess what? None of the three scenarios are going away—and most agency marketers are interested in taking advantage of all three types of banner buying. That being said, both the “deep and direct” and the “mid-tail” plays offer the modern advertiser a way to engage with readers in a way that respects both their frame of mind when reading—and the quality of the content itself. While the automated ad platforms hint at the ability to reach users in the right place, there is no way to ensure that the user will be found in both trusted content where he is truly engaged.

I think the platforms of the future will provide open architecture that enables the smart marketer to take advantage of all three display buying tactics (and eventually be able to plug into mobile ad platforms, where the future lies). Publishers with focused content that engages their readership in a trusted environment will always be able to command premium rates. Large publishers will always be challenged by mid-tail players with more niche audiences (whether regional, or by specialty). That’s great for the business, as it means more choice for the reader, and more outlets for advertisers seeking greater granularity in content and, therefore, audience. Finally, the emerging class of reach players that can combine data and tools to make audience targeting better and more affordable (on a ROI basis) will always be a great option for the savvy advertiser.  By the time the platform wars are over, using a “DSP” (or whatever they will eventually be called) to reach audiences tactically at scale will be as easy as logging on to your Gmail account.

Agencies and direct advertisers should insist that all three buying tactics be part of the future of digital display, and make sure that the platforms they are adopting are the ones that leave as many options on the table as possible.

[This article appeared in Adotas, 5/28/10]

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