It's hard to say when it happened, but what we used to call advertising is now simply known as ad tech -- emphasis on tech. Media buying, which is the pulsing heart of ad tech, is closing in on $60 billion dollars a year. That's great news for advertisers who are reaching their targets with greater efficacy and efficiency, typically at lower cost. Candidly, it's great news for ad tech vendors, too. But as a marketing guy, I worry when I see that even the Cannes Lions Festival, the granddaddy boondoggle of creative, is shifting its focus to tech.
Why is that cause for alarm? Because creative is more important than ever. Advertisers are investing heavily to identify and reach precise target profiles, but that technology is only a means to an end. Tech matters, but advertisers shouldn't forget the ad or the creativity required to make it stand out.
Programmatic means your ads compete directly with B2C ads
For a variety of reasons, B2B marketing has lagged behind B2C, both in terms of budget and adoption of advertising technology. Increasingly, however, B2B marketers are turning to technologies like programmatic, largely because programmatic increases the efficiency and effectiveness of lead generation. But as B2B marketers pioneer new opportunities, they're also encountering new challenges.
One new challenge is a higher bar for creative. In the past, B2B ads ran only in trade publications. Advertisers would have to compete with each other for a prospect's attention, but that competition was confined to the somewhat-level playing field of a trade journal. A B2B ad had to be more compelling than the other ads in the journal, but it didn't have to be anywhere near as compelling as a B2C ad.
In a programmatic world, however, advertisers reach their audience independent of media. That means that the ad you created for a trade publication will likely run on a B2C website. So while targeting has improved -- programmatic delivers the right ad, to the right person, at the right time -- B2B advertisers are no longer protected by the walled garden of a trade journal.
In this new context, the creative is paramount. Your leads are no longer business buyers flipping through a trade publication with their work hat on, they're consumers, just like you. And just like you, your leads are easily distracted and hard to impress. So whether you're reaching those leads in a consumer context, like a sports or news site, or a trade publication, there is now only one creative bar, and it is incredibly high because it applies in equal measure to both B2B and B2C advertising. That means a B2B ad can't just be a picture of the product and a few key specs anymore -- it needs to tell a good story, appeal to a buyer's emotion, and encourage sharing.
One generic B2B ad won't work anymore
Programmatic raises the creative bar for B2B ads, but it also requires advertisers to make more creatives for each campaign. Why is that? In a word: relevance.
When you create a single ad for a trade journal, you make an assumption that your audience is comprised of a typical buyer. In reality, you know that the so-called typical buyer is about as real as a unicorn. But without the ability to change up your creative and target it to different audience personas, the only choice is to aim at a generic prospect that's somewhere in the middle of your audience and hope that your message speaks to as many leads as possible.
In the programmatic context, however, you're targeting multiple personas. A hotel near a convention center, for example, may want to reach lawyers who will be in town for a bar association meeting, but within that group there are dozens of unique and specific personas.
- Big-firm lawyers looking for a luxury experience with concierge service
- Foodie lawyers looking for a hotel close to dining options
- Fitness-freak lawyers who absolutely must have a gym
Most hotels can cater to a diverse range of customer needs such as high-touch service, great dining options, and gym amenities. But if the hotel relies on a single creative, it's impossible to speak directly to each of those audiences' interests. On the other hand, targeted creative enables them to deliver the right message to the right customer --displaying a health club ad to the gym rat while carving out another opportunity to speak to the luxury traveler about amenities and concierge service. Put simply: If you're going to spend the money on targeting, you better be prepared to spend the money on design relevant creative for each target.
Brand matters for B2B
Right now, a B2B advertiser can make a huge impact with better creative that's targeted to specific personas. But before you run out and commission a high-impact ad for each persona, it's important to take a step back and consider your brand.
Historically, B2B brands have gotten short shrift. But a brand is an incredibly valuable thing in the B2B world; in fact, some have argued that a brand is more important for B2B than B2C. But even if you see branding in purely B2C terms, it's worth thinking about your B2B brand for a couple of reasons.
First, your brand is what will inform your creative. The intangible values that make up your brand are the natural starting place for any campaign, but they're also the logical benchmark against which you'll want to approve any creative. As you go out to multiple personas at the same time, you'll craft different messages for each, but only a strong sense of brand will insure a uniform and recognizable identity in the marketplace.
Second, as your competitors adopt and perfect technologies like programmatic, your brand -- rather than your media buying prowess -- will be what sets you apart from the pack. After all, any company with money can buy the right tech and hire a skilled team to use it, but you can't exactly pick up a brand at the brand store. On the other hand, when you have a strong brand, leads know you by name even before they see the ad.
Third, a strong brand is important in B2B because buyers are circumventing traditional channels like the sales team. It's now typical for buyers to educate themselves before engaging with a supplier. Not surprisingly, 70 percent of B2B marketers say they're creating more content than they were the previous year. In other words, it's no longer enough to have a great product and a strong sales team. Success in B2B now hinges on a combination of an earned, owned, and paid media strategy. Without strong branding, it's impossible to unify and coordinate all three.
The challenge of reaching your audience is increasingly becoming a science. But the more companies drill deep on audience data, the more they'll have to get creative with their messaging and branding. Advertising is now ad tech, but the goal remains the same -- to create a connection with the person. In that sense, nothing has changed, because impactful creative is still the only way to turn an impression into a lead.
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