Understanding Programmatic Advertising in 4 Steps

Marketing Tips for Digital B2B Advertising Success

In the B2B world, the adoption of programmatic advertising is quickly growing: Nearly two-thirds of marketers are currently buying or selling digital advertising programmatically, with close to 70 percent planning to increase their programmatic spending, according to the 2017 B2B programmatic outlook by Adweek Brandshare and Dun & Bradstreet.

But as programmatic advertising continues to permeate B2B, both marketers and agencies are facing challenges. Marketers, for example, are stumped when programmatic doesn’t automatically drive leads. (Often, poor data sets and analytics are to blame.) Agencies, on the other hand, struggle to establish transparent relationships with marketers, which ultimately affect campaign goals and, eventually, outcomes.

Marketers and agencies must establish a close working relationship marked by clear rules of engagement. This requires that both parties agree on the expectations, goals, and procedures.
Kristin Burnham, Independent Journalist and Editor, Dun & Bradstreet

Define Success - Set B2B Marketing KPIs

Marketers and agencies must establish a close working relationship marked by clear rules of engagement. This requires that both parties agree on the expectations, goals, and procedures that will guide their programmatic efforts. And it’s harder than it sounds. Before embarking on a programmatic journey, marketers and agencies should strike a level set in four areas.


1. B2B Programmatic Advertising Doesn’t Always Drive Leads

A common misconception among B2B marketers – which agencies fail to address – is that programmatic ad buying should always drive leads, says Alison Watson, VP of connections planning and media at marketing agency nFusion. While this can be achieved with the right framework in place, it’s wrong to assume it’s automatic – or that programmatic is simply not worthwhile unless it’s driving direct leads.

“A lot of times, that’s why programmatic gets a bad rap,” she says. “Marketers and agencies need to understand the goal of it up-front with each campaign. Everyone needs to be on the same page and understand where it fits and what the KPIs are going to be.”

The primary KPIs B2B marketers use to gauge the effectiveness of their programmatic campaigns are conversions, leads, and engagement, according the Adweek Brandshare-Dun & Bradstreet report. Marketers rank impression-level metrics, such as web traffic, lower as programmatic KPIs, possibly because these numbers are indiscriminate as to prospect desirability and conversion.

“The key distinction here is traffic versus engagement,” Watson says.

Establishing metrics that will determine the quality of leads, where they are in their decision journey, and how likely they are to convert is far more important than driving potentially the wrong traffic.
Alison Watson, VP of Connections Planning and Media, nFusion

“Establishing metrics beyond a visit that will determine the quality of that lead, where they are in their decision journey, and how likely they are to convert is far more important than just driving potentially the wrong traffic.”

Problems arise, Watson says, when agencies present a strategy in which programmatic ad buying has a lower-funnel focus, but leads are not the primary KPI for this tactic. “We’ll get the client’s nod on that, but then they see it’s not driving leads and they end up wanting to switch gears,” she says.


When the KPI isn’t leads, for example, you might look at the number of landing page engagements, then implement retargeting and drive people back to the site a few weeks later to finally convert, Watson says. This transparency, coupled with setting clear expectations up front, help both marketers and agencies understand where programmatic fits as a piece of the overall media plan.

“Finding users or lookalikes can be beneficial to filling up the pipeline. Display on its own is not going to be as beneficial to helping sales close a deal as when paired with the right retargeting strategy or something of that nature,” says Rebekah Thomas, director of digital demand generation at Dun & Bradstreet. “Still, programmatic has its place in any digital B2B media mix.”

2. Quality B2B Marketing Databases are Required to Drive Leads

For programmatic advertising to drive leads, clients must be able to provide rich data, Watson says. In terms of volume, this means “thousands upon thousands” of records from marketing databases that are clean and regularly updated. In B2B, this often comes from a combination of first-party, third-party and CRM data.


“The agency’s ability to meet objectives is only as good as the visibility that they get into the media and the leads they’re driving,” Thomas says. If your objective is revenue but you can’t provide your agency with information about leads that are driving revenue or profiles of those leads, for example, then they’re not able to optimize what’s actually working well, she says. Agencies should be completely candid with marketers when their data sets are insufficient and unlikely to help achieve campaign goals.


With good data, agencies can identify audiences based on prospects who have requested a demo, but haven’t actually converted, Watson says. Or, they might create a database of people who have downloaded three key assets, but haven’t yet requested a demo. Without that abundance of data, achieving scale, segmentation and targeting become problematic.

“It’s difficult programmatically to take a small list of accounts and target them. Programmatic needs scale to be able to serve anything at all,” Watson says. “There’s pressure on B2B marketers to drive traffic and leads – and the right ones. Marketers ask agencies to do both at the same time, but it’s difficult to do.”

3. Detailed Performance Analytics are Essential

In a perfect world, marketing and advertising technologies would integrate seamlessly, giving teams insight into the full pipeline – from the very first impression via programmatic and on through a series of conversions until it finally becomes a sales opportunity, Watson says. And while some technologies exist that patch together multiple sources of data, a perfect, symbiotic relationship is rare, Thomas adds.


“Agencies know ad tech well but experience challenges in planning campaigns that balance across the marketing system,” she says. “Where ad tech and martech platforms do intersect, integrations are not typically seamless, and data-sharing all the way through is very challenging.” This creates a breakdown in the communication loop, resulting in mounting frustration among the agency, media team, and sales.


Until martech and ad tech find better ways to talk to each other, marketers need to pay particular attention to their tracking setup. This means, for example, confirming that your team has a specific campaign ID set up for  related programmatic buys, Watson says. “The key is making sure that before anything launches, there’s an analytics framework in place so performance can be tracked granularly.”

Agencies, on the flip side, must do their due diligence to understand what systems the marketing client is using and how they report on performance. “It’s critical to make sure there’s transparency up front in the analytics so everything is tracked and we are speaking each other’s language,” Watson says.

4. Programmatic is One Piece of Holistic Marketing

Some B2B marketers perceive programmatic advertising as a magical cure-all, bound to work wonders and conjure valuable leads. What they forget, Watson says, are the number of elements that must be in place to drive its success: the data, audience, KPIs, and analytics. Marketers shouldn't misinterpret programmatic as a panacea. Instead, Thomas advises, think of it as one piece of the puzzle.

“There’s this perception that digital marketing equals programmatic,” she says. “Marketers sometimes overlook that there are other digital tactics that play into and can enhance the quality of the end results.”

The notion of programmatic as one piece in a B2B paid media strategy is essential for all marketers to understand. Agencies need to work with marketers to develop an appropriate, actionable media plan in which programmatic is one element, rather than the sole element, Thomas says.

“If you’re able to work with your agency toward a media plan that meets objectives across multiple tactics, you’ll be better off than going into it with a go-all-programmatic sense. Try not to be so prescriptive around cost efficiency or volume that all you get back are programmatic options,” she says.

Programmatic advertising’s growing ubiquity in B2B means both marketers and agencies must work together more cohesively to encourage successful outcomes. For agencies, it starts with prioritizing transparency and communication; for marketers, it starts with a better understanding of programmatic advertising’s strengths and how it fits into the broader marketing framework.

“When programmatic falls short, it’s because both parties don’t understand some of these areas, or they're just not put into place,” Watson says. “No one needs to understand all the nuts and bolts – but you need more than just a general understanding.”