The digital landscape does not look the same as it did only a few years ago. The use of big data, programmatic media buying, and social advertising has dominated trade headlines, making their use a growing necessity for brands and their competing agencies. Marketers have adopted this shift in varying degrees, with the early adopters getting a first crack at navigating the potential with varying degrees of success. With every test, update, and tweak to these media, the ROI became more compelling and more budgets were allocated toward them. The caveat to this new found positive attention was that not every marketer had the tactical knowledge, internal resources, or strategic acumen to pull it off well.
To compensate for any gaps or expand on this knowledge base, brands might reach out to their existing agencies that they perceive have the skill sets. In some cases, brands get a boost, but this is not always the case. Advertising agencies come in all shapes and sizes with varying degrees of value that they lend to brands. Agencies tackle a variety of needs ranging from creative services, media planning, strategy, consulting, social media, mobile development, and others to achieve brand goals and performance-based KPIs. This means there are brands that will align themselves with one agency of record (AOR), and that agency may farm out portions of the work to those who specialize in that skill set if they don't have the know-how in-house. Finding subject matter expertise is incredibly important if brands want to venture into uncharted territory with their best foot forward.
For agencies looking for guidance in developing proficiencies in big data, programmatic buying, and social media, here are a few things to consider.
Outside of Wall Street traders and NSA analysts, few industries rival the amount of data collection and analysis that many in the digital marketing space rely upon. Digital marketers rely heavily upon data to drive their decision making, especially when the data can be collected, processed, and executed in real time. These marketers are held accountable for every penny of spend, which means they look at data to inform their media buying, infrastructure investments, and even the kinds of creatives or ads used in a particular campaign.
In most cases, the idea of "big data" services goes hand in hand with attribution and targeting data.
Top digital marketers have spent hundreds of millions of ad dollars intertwined with millions in analysis to parse through every impression, click, and conversion. Analysts will scour through the data from a variety of angles to find actionable steps in campaign optimization. At its most basic sense, basic ad tech reports should give you a high level overview of a particular channel (e.g., display, search, email, RTB, etc.), but comprehensive analysis takes investment in an internal data analytics group or an attribution vendor (e.g., Convertro, C3 Metrics, Adometry, etc.) to dissect how different pieces of the media mix affect each other. Once a marketer is able to paint a holistic picture of all the touchpoints a user takes before an action is taken, the marketer can adjust media budgets accordingly. For any marketers interested in investing in attribution, see my recent article, "7 common attribution mistakes."
On the targeting side, big data is brought up when talking about the quantity of data points to use in ad targeting. Ad servers, ad networks, DSPs, third party data providers, and first party data providers leverage big data to fuel their targeting and retargeting efforts through cookie pools or audience segments. Ads that leverage the data become much more valuable because they are being shown to a more relevant audience with a higher likelihood of engagement. For that reason, it is important that big data is coupled with an intelligent system that segments granularly, refreshes frequently, and leverages strong optimization algorithms. The smarter the optimization levers, the better the results.
One area of digital marketing that particular relies on big data is programmatic buying.
Programmatic buying (DSPs)
Programmatic buying through demand-side platforms (DSPs) allows advertisers to buy media from a collage of ad exchanges through real-time bidding. As the method for accessing exchange based inventory, a DSP will give advertisers more control over what publishers you buy media from, ensure the lowest price for each ad placement bought, and bid on your target audience across any number of websites through the exchanges. This allows advertisers to do things like retarget customers one impression at a time, contextually target, or simply cherry pick websites.
What started as a place to tap into remnant display ad inventory, ad exchanges have now transformed into a marketplace for video, mobile, social, and even premium inventory for DSPs to tap into. As one of the most significant media innovations of the past five years, the power of programmatic media buying was generally confined to a full-service engagement with a DSP or an ad network. The notable exceptions to this lay with those agencies that have built the infrastructure to support this kind of service.
Over the past few years, agencies have helped DSPs improve their systems to include more transparency, brand safety levers, and optimization tools. However, some of the largest buyers of exchange based inventory still reside with various ad networks. As experts in ad optimization, ad networks possessed the natural competencies to navigate the nuances of exchange based inventory as a natural extension of their own. They were some of the first bidders of exchange inventory to supplement their existing inventory to hit CPA targets, hit more site categories, and expand their retargeting options. As some of the first movers, they accrued substantial experience.
Building the successful competencies for managing programmatic buying requires three items:
- Exchange access -- either through proprietary access or a commercial DSP partner. For tips on evaluating these vendors, see "5 ways to pick the perfect vendor."
- Campaign managers -- those with experience in deploying and optimizing programmatic inventory.
- Smart learning and optimization algorithms -- being able to go beyond first or third party data segmentation and find winning targets with the right bidding logic.
Luckily, agencies dabbling in buying exchange inventory can build competency fairly quickly as they will have full control over the inventory they bid on. The upside to exchanges is that any deprecation of performance can be quickly corrected, but on the flipside, they have to be carefully monitored. When agencies bid on inventory, they are bidding on every individual impression. So while changes can be made quickly, so can the performance of the campaign. Unlike that of paid search, the programmatic buying controls of DSPs are not as mature.
Paid search has much more predictable bid and pricing mechanisms with more than 12 years of tinkering. This means that once a brand's search campaign has been established, it is easier to have an "always on" strategy with only minor (excluding promotions/holidays campaigns) tweaks than it is with a DSP campaign. Search marketers are bidding on keywords with historical data on a few sites (e.g., Google, Bing, and Yahoo), while those display exchange buyers are bidding on many sites, through many exchanges, for particular individuals or segments. As advice, agencies should not even think about attempting a "set it and forget it" approach to an exchange based campaign or risk that campaign's success. Start small, and take extra special care of the campaign until insights are gained to help you move forward.
Social media can mean a lot of different things to different people, and in most cases each definition has some degree of accuracy. One of the best ways to look at social media can be summed up in a quote by Seth Godin: "Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell." For agencies, it is important to understand all social media's facets to delivery a story successfully. Once an agency is able to successfully deliver this story, it will be infinitely easy to pitch the value of social media.
Some top-tiered brands have done a great job developing their Facebook page, developing applications for it, and have acquired some fans who "like" the page. However, after the brands hit their target KPI (usually number of "likes"), they tend to either dismiss the other social media categories or simply cease their social efforts. Others have told me that, "We threw $1000 at Facebook, and it didn't work for us" -- a laughable investment given the budget required to hit the critical mass needed to reach the kind of ROI or brand engagement metrics desired. To put this in perspective, a "test buy" on a display ad network is typically around $10,000 to $20,000 -- 10 to 20 times more than some invested in social.
To seize this social opportunity, agencies will need to be proficient in some best practices for social, starting with the basics. To get started, agencies will need to become experts at these three social media categories:
- Owned media -- published content
- Paid media -- purchased ads
- Earned media -- free brand coverage
Each category has its own nuances, but the most important aspect to social media is executing a strategy that leverages all of these categories in unison. As an example, Facebook paid advertisements can be very powerful, but simply buying ads will not be as impactful without a coordinated effort with an owned media team (see article "Who should manage your social campaigns"). The team that publishes the brand's Facebook page needs to regularly and predictably publish content that can be amplified through paid media. Further, knowing your audience can dictate the kinds of social activities to pay special attention to (see the Pew Research social media demographic study here).
Once an agency has identified the areas of focus for the brands it represents, they will need to work with their creative and strategy teams to come up with compelling content for the social channel. Compelling content will not only drive engagement from followers, but it will also drive those followers to share that content with their networks, which expands that brand's reach. A compelling offer could be as simple as a time-sensitive coupon, a contest that must be shared, tweeted, promoted, or pinned, or a referral program in order to redeem.
For social marketing agencies, there is no shortage of people frequenting social media sites. According to Alexa site rankings, Facebook holds the No. 1 spot as the most trafficked site on the web internationally and holds the No. 2 spot in the U.S. behind Google. Facebook has been the powerhouse of social networking, but it is starting to get some stiff competition from Twitter (No. 11), LinkedIn (No. 12), Pinterest (No. 16), and Tumblr (No. 18). Three out of the four have established ad units that are being purchased for both branding and direct response geared campaigns.
As many in social media agencies will tell their brands, "People may already be discussing your brand on social networks; it is up to you if you want to be a part of the conversation."
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