More B2B marketers are delving into programmatic ad buying, according to the 2017 B2B programmatic outlook by Adweek Brandshare and Dun & Bradstreet. This technology, which B2C marketers have used successfully for years, enlists automated technology to buy and sell digital media across millions of websites rather than relying on human interactions to secure digital ad placements.
However, specific barriers in the B2B space are inhibiting programmatic success. Among them: B2B’s lengthy sales cycle, insufficient data sets and unclear campaign measurement. Marketers note other challenges, too, ranging from ad blocking and click fraud to attribution and data cost transparency. But topping the list as the No. 1 concern of 42 percent of B2B marketers: targeting the right audiences.
Programmatic advertising has been prevalent in B2C, but B2B has been slower to adopt it. Why?
B2B marketers live in a world of trade shows and content creation, and their messages are disseminated through owned channels like websites and email. They might be using search and social, but the realm of paid media has not traditionally played a big part for them in the way it has for B2C.
A big part of the delay is just a learning curve. B2B marketers are starting to get into programmatic because they’re reading about how big an opportunity it is, how much growth there is in the programmatic sector and what makes it so great. There’s a lot of buzz about programmatic’s ability to target precisely, execute fast, optimize in real time, and a million other great things. But you don’t develop the organizational readiness or the skill set overnight. I think this is probably an important lens to lay on B2B’s slower adoption: Programmatic is asking a lot of marketers to speak a new language.
So the “new language” is one of the challenges B2B marketers have with programmatic. What else are they doing (or not doing) that makes precise targeting a struggle in automated digital media buys?
Some B2B marketers are under the impression that they can just log in to a platform and get started. They’re actually better served getting a little education and guidance along the way.
Some of it comes down to talking to peers who might be starting to experiment with this stuff. Go out and find a technology company or service provider who can give you some advice and get you thinking about a meaningful road map in programmatic.
Marketers also need to be an active partner with their agencies and ask smart questions from the beginning: What is your organization doing with programmatic? How are you staffed? What are some examples of successful applications of programmatic? What role does it play in an overall media mix? What kinds of programmatic insights do you find most interesting? Basically, you want them to prove that they can bring intelligent and interesting insights back to you.
And what about B2B marketers’ advertising partners? What do they need to do better?
Some of agencies’ traditional skill sets are changing in an era of programmatic. These firms need to have an understanding of data and a comfort level with technology. They also should think about managing the real customer experience, which extends beyond a single channel. Most importantly, agencies should focus on insights and be an authentic consultative partner.
A critical part of any successful brand-agency partnership is transparency – which is also one of the greatest powers of programmatic. But programmatic can also be done non-transparently if you work with partners who aren’t transparent with you.
Agencies should help B2B marketers understand things like the prices that are being paid, how the machine learning algorithm is making decisions and why it’s picking one impression over another. Then marketers can understand the economies of what’s going on.
You mention data, which is the cornerstone of targeting in programmatic. What do B2B marketers need to understand about its role?
First and foremost, you need to think about your own first-party data. You should have a lead database that’s clean and up to date. Next, keep in mind that high data quality is good only if you know what to do with it. Are you using the available data in the right ways? Are you creating audience segmentation that’s really well aligned with your organization’s business goals?
Traditionally, the next place to look is third-party B2B data providers – organizations that are licensed stores of aggregated sources of data. There are all sorts of data points you can purchase to enrich your existing understanding of the audience you already have, such as company revenue, verticals, and job title.
Are there any emerging data trends B2B marketers should pay attention to?
A new and interesting development is the rise of what we’d call second-party data, which is defined differently by different people. For me, it refers to transacting with another party’s data. For example, I can go to another B2B firm that is complementary to me and trade data with that organization. Basically, through second-party data, I can create a business relationship where data is the actual substance of the transaction.
Does that combination of first-, second- and third-party data usually give marketers the scale they want?
No – especially if who you’re targeting is particularly niche. But one of the most useful things you can do is turn to lookalike modeling to build audiences that look like your best audiences. This will work in some B2B contexts better than others, but there is magic here. How a B2B marketer thinks about who he or she is really trying to target – and why – is going to be different for everyone.
Unique to B2B marketing is the lengthy sales cycle. How does this contribute to the difficulty of programmatic targeting?
You need to have a pretty tight handle on identity – understanding that the user you’re targeting in email is also the user that you’re targeting with programmatically driven display or video advertising.
In the digital advertising world, so much of what we’ve done has been broad – and not just anonymous, but unknown. In a B2B context, when you’re nurturing a lead through a fairly long purchase cycle, you really need to have some confidence that you’re understanding the user at the user level. If you’re doing something with that user in email, for example, you need to recognize that same user in display to be able to create linked experiences, in a privacy-compliant way.
Linking experiences together when you’re talking about a high-consideration purchase is important. You’re creating connective experiences, which requires that you have the right organizational structure so you don’t have one person handling advertising in email and another in display and they never talk to each other.
That makes a lot of sense. If we’re going to deliver a seamless customer experience, marketing team members should be interconnected, and the collaboration should be always-on.
Exactly. Often B2B marketers tend to think of programmatic as a channel like, ‘Display advertising or video advertising has gone programmatic.’ With this mindset, we overlook other opportunities for integration and interconnection.
When you think about the programmatic definition more expansively, it’s really about using the automation of process and decisioning to make sure that you’re serving something meaningful to a customer or prospect across the purchase life cycle, which requires that you have interoperable technologies, which requires that you have a core of machine learning, which requires that you have a core understanding of users and a core center of data.
When you start thinking about programmatic in that way, it stops being, ‘Oh, we’re running a programmatic campaign,’ and you start thinking about how to make sure that all the technologies I use to speak to customers are interconnected and informing one another so I'm driving a seamless, relevant experience for this person or segment across space and time, formats and devices.
Speaking of the user experience, how does ad blocking play into this? How serious a threat is it to B2B programmatic targeting?
On a certain level, ad-blocking is exciting. You can look at it as an outlet for disengaged or frustrated consumers, but there’s a benefit there, too. It’s raising the level of discussion around the importance of good customer experiences. The only B2B marketers who should be worried about ad blocking are those who aren’t interested in fixing bad customer experiences. If you’re a good brand that wants to have a relationship with consumers because a healthy relationship creates loyalty, which creates long-term business success, you want to do better.
Is native advertising a solution?
Native advertising is a part of the solution, but the real solution is giving consumers experiences. It’s about what you say to them, where you say it and how often you say it. If you serve the same user an ad 100 times a day, I guarantee you’re going to annoy that user. But if you’re thinking about holistic ad frequency management, for example, you’re going to know that you’ve already served that consumer an ad twice today and maybe you don’t serve them another ad until tomorrow. You figure out what the appropriate frequency curve is and stick to it.
Really, the increased emphasis on creating experiences is a great opportunity for marketers to get back to what they’re really good at, which is creating emotional responses, creating desire, and fulfilling needs in their target customers, whether they’re a customer today or become a customer tomorrow. It’s a return to marketing’s old art, in some ways, but it also requires that you get comfortable with data and tech as an enabler.
Let’s end with the ROI of programmatic advertising: What can B2B marketers do to ensure that they’re getting their money’s worth?
The most important thing is being involved. The agency needs to provide insight into what’s happening with your money and control to be able to set the parameters that will make you feel comfortable. This might include blacklists, using contextual taxonomies that avoid having content run next to something you don’t want, making sure you’re being removed from websites that are engaged in fraudulent or illegal activities, and having viewability targeting set up as a matter of course. All of these capabilities exist, but you need to make sure you’re taking advantage of them.
One last thing, which can’t be said enough: Never lose sight of optimizing the things that are really meaningful.
For more insights on the state of programmatic advertising, check out the report from Adweek Brandshare and Dun & Bradstreet: “B2B Programmatic Becomes a Reality: Outlook 2017."