Paid Media

Digital Media and its Discontents

Last time we wrote about how to get started on an analysis of your digital media. We’ve done this kind of analysis at varying levels of depth for a number of companies. For those of you who simply haven’t had the opportunity to dig very deeply into your own numbers, we thought we’d share some general findings.

No context, no conversion

One of the most basic and universal things worth sharing is the notion of on-site context. Brands will spend a huge amount of money to develop and advertise a campaign digitally, only to abandon their message once a customer arrives on the site. A user will click through to the site excited about the campaign only to be dropped on a generic site page, without mention of the campaign at all.

Brands will often do this because of the time and effort associated with making a change to their site. Their CMS is old and prone to failure when promoting content across their website, mobile site, and app. It requires intervention from multiple external vendors and a half dozen internal approvals before it can go live. But brands without a modern content infrastructure are usually in a position to spin up a landing page. There are downsides (another click) and upsides (improved SEO for the campaign), but arguably anything is better than losing the customer at the final stages of the sale. Despite the fact that ecommerce has been a phenomenon for two decades, this is still happening, and the amount of money lost to brands collectively across the digital space must be staggering.

The digital postman rings once

Email is typically your very best performing channel in terms of conversion. This makes sense as these people are likely your most loyal customers, but unless you’ve got more than a million active users in your database, the channel’s volume is limited. Moreover, email isn’t an acquisition channel and it’s not going to help you grow your customer base.

Social ads are the most popular

Paid ads on channels like Facebook and Twitter are top performers when compared with any other paid channel. Why? Well, like email this is arguably a lower funnel channel, as it will include both people who have never heard of you before, and more established/loyal customers that follow you. Once again though, unless you have a very significant amount of followers, this probably isn’t enough to explain all of the success you are seeing with paid social.

It probably has more to do with the fact that the social team you’ve hired to manage these channels is on top of things. Most of the targeting tools available for ads are also available for posts, so someone in your organization more than likely has an inherent understanding of how to make the most of this channel from both an earned and a paid perspective.

This means that they can place the ad buys themselves, or they can provide better more detailed instructions to the media agency making the buys on your behalf. In fact, they are able to be very particular about the buy in terms of customer segments and also remain very up to date about how the ad is performing across those segments. Reporting from these channels is immediate, and if your social team is watching they have the ability to course correct a media buy very quickly. In short, these channels are winners because of their ease of use, their transparency, and most importantly the ability to quickly optimize.

Programmatic is problematic

I think most people will agree that they have become experts at ignoring display/banner ads. This was supposed to be resolved through programmatic ad buying, which is inherently more targeted and therefore more relevant and interesting to the people seeing the ads. But programmatic is black box to most brands. In fact, it’s a black box to most media agencies.

Programmatic buys are display ad buys made by technology, without human intervention. At this point a good portion of your display ads purchases are likely programmatic.

The problem is that most media agencies really only have a hazy understanding of how this works, and are unable to effectively navigate the technology systems behind programmatic buying to properly advocate on behalf of their clients. In fact, it is even worse than that. From a digital media perspective, most media agencies are actually conglomerates of smaller agencies, each with their own expertise. These agencies are often siloed and poorly integrated. Even the most well meaning account management team will struggle to manage all of these players on your behalf. You know you have this problem if your team is consistently and widely outnumbered by the amount of agency people at every meeting.

Finally, you have the technology layer underneath to figure out, and that can be daunting. Digital display ads are sold directly from publishers (other websites where you might want to advertise), on ad networks (pre-purchased inventory from a group of publishers sold at a fixed markup by the whoever owns the network), and through ad exchanges (a network where advertisers bid on ads for a variable cost).

There are thousands of publishers and dozens of networks and exchanges (some public, some private). To control and manage buying across all of these requires a technology layer, variously referred to as a Demand Side Platform/DSP or a Supply Side Platform/SSP depending on whether or not it is being run on behalf of an exchange or a publisher. There are hundreds of DSP/SSP technologies, and media agencies rarely have expertise in them all. In fact your programmatic campaign could well be administered by yet another third party with the required expertise. Many different technologies may be at play in a single campaign, and each technology has different rules and options for buying and targeting, as well as different abilities to report their results. With these many layers and silos of expertise, it is very difficult to get timely and consistent view into ad performance. Murkier still, media agencies often have their own network or exchange to which they may want to give preference. All of these factors complicate this channel, and I haven’t even mentioned issues like viewability or fraud.

Unlike paid social, this isn’t a place where you can just experiment to see what might work, and easily make adjustments along the way. You need a solid strategy going in.

Unfortunately, most brands aren’t in a position to provide the detailed direction, as they lack details about their own online customer base. This is where an investment in a data infrastructure is invaluable. I’ll go into more detail in the third and final article in this series, but for now suffice to say that brand without data driven customer insights cannot hope to get the best out of this channel, as the inherent complexity conspires to make it one of the most expensive and least valuable channel in terms of traffic and conversion. The channel will often be touted generating a large number of impressions, which is supposed to be a measurement of brand awareness, but given how well we are conditioned to ignore these ad types, this seems very debatable.

Pro-Tip: Agencies working to find solutions to this problem will often work to include a higher degree of mobile ads into the mix. The reason for this is two fold, the mobile ads will typically cost less to run, and generally do have a higher click through rate (CTR). As a result they drive more traffic, but here’s where you want to have a hard look at conversion. Despite the improved CTR, if your site isn’t optimized for a mobile experience drop off will be huge and the money wasted. Even if you have a decent mobile web experience, mobile purchase conversion can be lower for a lot of brands when compared with a desktop web experience. Either way, it might make sense to reconsider how you think about conversion for mobile ads. To make the most of this channel, perhaps conversion for the mobile experience should be something like find the nearest store (if you have stores), or to ensure the best mobile experience, an app download (if you have an app).

Search can take you in the wrong direction

Search also seems like a solid performer until you start to look a little more critically. Search clickthrough and conversion is high, but sooner or later it will become apparent that what is driving these great numbers is what is known as branded search. That is to say search terms that include your brand name.

Most brands have convinced themselves they need to be constantly bidding on branded terms to shut out the competition. But I’ve personally been a part of experiments where we have turned off branded search term buys, only to discover that all of the paid traffic was completely replaced by organic search traffic.

This isn’t to say that one of your competitors who was offering a great deal for a limited period wouldn’t be able to steal away some of your traffic with a well placed paid search ad. The key here is the phrase “limited time”, and what makes the most sense is timing your own branded search bids to match. Otherwise, you are paying year round for traffic you would otherwise be getting for free, and in all likelihood locking up a significant piece of your budget that is better spent elsewhere.

One of the places you should reinvest this money is in unbranded terms. If you have your agency split out your branded vs. unbranded search results, your initial unbranded numbers may not look very promising. This mostly comes down to a general lack of attention. However, if your primary focus for search is Google (as is probably the case), you are in luck. Just as with some of the larger social media channels, Google makes available a very usable toolset that can provide a high degree of transparency into what is currently going on with your own search or even across your industry. Google Adwords provides a number of planning tools for search keywords. Brands have less familiarity with these tools because unlike social, it’s not something they are involved with on a regular basis. However, the learning curve is low, and brands can quickly find themselves in a position where they are placing their own experimental buys, or simply becoming better informed so they might be more effective at partnering with their media agency.

Keep in mind that these tools will only really give you a snapshot of the kinds of searches that are already driving results (if not for you then someone else). In order to get the most out of unbranded keywords you need to find that perfect white space: a correlation between people who are predisposed to your brand (although not yet customers) and their relatable interests that have not yet been tapped as paid search terms by you or your competitors. This isn’t something you are going to arrive at through Google Adwords alone. Again, a data infrastructure is required.

One last word on the subject of search. When brands run campaigns for new products, the name of the new product can effectively become a sub-brand. At the very least the campaign has the potential to create a new keyword or key phrase in the minds of their customers. It takes a while for search terms to propagate (both mentally and digitally), but if you are running a seasonal campaign that will last a few months it could be well worth the effort to invest in a matching search term buy for the name of the new product. Brands will often invest heavily to promote a new product, but fail to make use of this new awareness in the digital space.

In conclusion

All of this apparent complexity might lead you to believe that you should get out of display and paid search altogether, but you shouldn’t. To do so would mean shutting down your acquisition channels with the best reach. Notice I don’t say your best channels. Social (paid or otherwise) is the top performing channel for click through and conversion. It is the easiest medium to target, in order to get to the most qualified traffic. To capitalize on this, you should definitely consider establishing a digital content creation budget for use in social and other channels. As social becomes increasingly crowded, it will become harder and harder for brands to breakthrough to the right audience and content will be the key. The right content will also help improve your results in search. For more detail on the importance of content creation, please see our previous article “How to Steal a Brand”.

Having said that, social isn’t the entire internet, and done well both programmatic display and search can help you reach a broader audience you’ll never get at through social. Next week I’ll wrap up this series of articles with some advice on how to tackle some of the challenges related to these two channels.

2 thoughts on “Digital Media and its Discontents

  1. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

    1. Thanks Coolseo! Glad you liked the article – we’ll look at improving the visual aids 😉 You’re welcome back anytime!

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