Programmatic and Media Buying: Best Practices for Digital Advertising and Display
How can we avoid advertising disasters? When is it time to scale creatives? What is the hidden problem when switching vendors? Author/Expert Kevin Ryan walks OMCP through five of the current best practices for Programmatic Buying in this OMCP article+podcast.
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The OMCP Online Marketing Best Practices Podcast is where top authors and industry leaders share authoritative best practices in online marketing which are covered by the OMCP standard, competencies, and exams. This is an OMCP pilot program that may continue based on member interest and support. Stay subscribed to the OMCP newsletter to get new episodes.
Best Practices for Programmatic Buying:
Michael: All right. Welcome back to the OMCP studio. And with us today is Kevin Ryan, one of the leading strategists for digital media buying and planning, CEO of Motivity Marketing, and author of Taking Down Goliath and hundreds of articles and hundreds of articles on digital marketing. I’m your host, Michael Stebbins. And today, we’ll be discussing best practices for programmatic buying. Kevin, welcome to the OMCP best practices series.
Kevin: Good day. Thanks for having me.
Michael: I’ve got to say, back in the early 2000s or maybe before, you were the go-to expert on media buying and strategy. I know your contributions to the industry. And you’ve helped out the world’s biggest brands and have only grown since then. But before we get started, for those who haven’t read your book, read your articles, or heard you speak, tell our audience who are you and what is it that you do.
Kevin: All right. I do as little as possible, and I try to make that my life. You know, I run a small agency. And the model is very, very simple. I customize every engagement for the client’s needs set, so it has no potential to scale at all. And I work for…I spent most of my life in the agency environment with a couple of brief breaks running a conference series and things like that. But for the most part, I enjoy doing the work, and I enjoy working with clients. So it’s definitely one of those things that…it’s very much a labor of love for me in doing the agency work.
The book, I think, it was something that was in the works for three or four years. And I spent a good solid year on the road doing concept-testing, another year trying to sell it to publishers, and most of whom probably told me that…to put it in the not shiny place in the nicest way possible. But it was intended to be a digital strategy guide. And, ostensibly, it became the guide for small businesses. And so I achieved victory from one perspective in creating a strategy book that…it has lasted, I think, three years now, and it’s still getting better reviews and that sort of thing and not aging, because it’s not intended to be “Here’s how to…” you know, “Here are the latest tools to use.” That’s not what we’re going for with the book. It was more along the lines of, “This is what you should be thinking about in selecting tools and how you should approach building a solid strategy.”
So, you know, I mean, like I said, it ostensibly became the small business guide or a guide for small business. But, ultimately, it got a lot of play with, you know… See? Most I know who bought the book, not admitting that they were reading the book, because they were looking for ways to really beef up digital strategy. So I achieved victory and creating this book that has a scalable knowledge set, but failed in positioning it correctly because, you know, as you know, the market decides what you are. You don’t get to decide what you are.
Michael: Well, that’s the story of social media as well. But listen, Kevin, you and I share a distaste for stock photography. I remember that you get behind a camera sometimes, and maybe it’s just a hobby, but tell me a little bit about that.
Kevin: Yes. With all the travel and, I guess, mentioning the conference thing, I got so sick of seeing the stock photography in every single presentation. So I started just going out and taking photos of my daily life. And when you travel a lot and when you’re out and about, you see some really weird things, you know? You know, I was walking around LA and West Hollywood, and granted that’s really all I have to say.
So I see this van that’s “Nude male maids for $99.” Like, you see stuff like that, and you’re like…there’s a story that I can work in there somewhere. And now I have this amazing camera, I’m taking pictures of this stuff.
Another one that’s great… My buddy runs an agency. I have this great shot of a mug. My buddy runs an agency. As their team-building day, he did this craft thing. And one of his media people created this mug that says, “Nobody cares about your DSP,” which I think is indicative of… So I took a great photo of this mug into a presentation.
But, I mean, it’s stuff like that that, you know, that I come across that I absolutely have to record. And every single one of these things that I see, it just gets worked in somehow into a discussion, you know? And I just think, like, some of this stuff is just too funny to be real. And this is the stuff that I run into all the time.
I was out in the desert with my dog running around. We were driving cross-country, drove cross-country with her, and I was writing articles for a travel blog at the time. And I was just taking pictures of her wherever we went. And I have this great shot of these three signs together. And there’s these two signs and the dog sitting right in between them somewhere in New Mexico. And the first sign says, “Please exercise your pets in this area.” And a foot away from that sign is another sign that says, “Poisonous snakes and insects inhabit this area.”
And I have hundreds and hundreds of these photos that if I’m trying to tell a story somewhere and I need to be up in front of people and talking about it, I maintain this huge library of screen captures of pictures I’ve taken that, you know, you have to make fun of some of the crazy things that you run across, because otherwise, what’s the point?
Michael: And this just makes for that much better storytelling. So maybe we can talk you into sending a few of those and post them up with the podcast as well.
Michael: You’ve helped what I think are countless businesses set up a strategy for media buying, programmatic. Kevin, the audience knows, the world knows that you’re considered an authority on process, interviewed all over media for what you do. So I’m going to bring up five practices from the draft OMCP standards for programmatic. It’s still in draft right now. And, of course, we appreciate your contributions to that. And I wanna see what you have to say about them. So, for our audience, I’m going to read them out loud first. And then I’ll prompt you for each one as to what your thoughts are.
So the five in order are :
- Make a map of what you know about your target audience
- Every message must be mapped to a persona and a behavior scenario
- Define media channels that apply to your messaging and market
- Implement retargeting early in your campaigns
- Test early in a campaign
So, for the first one Kevin, you know, we can now apply behavior, demographics, interests, and even actions taken on our properties for programmatic, and it’s generally good practice to make a map of what you know about your target audience before you even start. In your experience, is that true? And what are some processes for planning that work out?
Make a Map of What You Know About Your Target Audience
Don’t make it so complicated that you end up in the administrative quagmire.
Kevin: So making that map is, in a perfect world, yes, absolutely love it. Eight days a week, that’s exactly what you should be doing. Where I think a lot of clients get bogged down in the weeds is that they’re trying to figure out how to do this. And the larger the company you’re working with, the bigger the problems that you run into and the more personalities that you run into and the more brand complications, as it were, you run into. And you can get, if you if you look at a bigger company…and I’m trying not to pick on the airlines, but it really just boils my bacon. Yesterday, sitting there listening to…because I watched the whole congressional hearing yesterday where the airlines were grilled.
But let’s pick on American Airlines for a second. They have what they refer to as a product set. And the product set is actually seats on a plane. And they’re trying to define audience segments for this product set and the likes and dislikes. Where it starts to get really complicated is you have the same product that carries a hundred different prices. And the prices vary according to the day of the week, the time of the day, the time of departure. But it may or may not be the same person who’s buying these things.
So when you start to map out exactly what an audience segment looks like, the best advice to tell your clients is don’t make it so complicated that you end up in the administrative quagmire known as “I’m not sure why this is going to make sense.” Or you now have so much data that you don’t know what to do with it all. Try to keep it simple. There are plenty of tools out there that help you do that. One of the easiest and best is some of these audience matching tools that you see with Facebook and Google. Those are those are great ways to build a framework around your audience.
Michael: And following on to that, in your book, Taking Down Goliath, you teach you teach all successful ad campaigns start by getting the right message to the right target. And since every message needs to be mapped to a persona and a behavior scenario, what are some of the best ways to do that?
Kevin: Well, this kind of goes back to very basic stuff of how well do you know your customer, which is spectacular because you should know your customer really well. But what you wanna know is how well do I know the people who haven’t bought things from me yet? The knowledge of my customer, how can I apply that knowledge to the people who don’t know me yet? And that’s the real challenge. And the only way to really achieve that is to get inside your analytics, to get inside your data and really look at the interactions that people are having at scale with what you’re offering.
And, you know, the best, the cheapest way to do that is to have a really good idea of what that looks like and start testing. You know, the old adage of “Test, test, and then retest” is very, very true, and it continues to be true today. So why wouldn’t you keep doing that by virtue of the fact that you could change these things so quickly and optimize them so quickly? There’s absolutely no reason that you can’t start with a series of really good ideas that haven’t stemmed from this ridiculous overflow of data and just go with what you know to be true about your customer and go with what you know to be true about the people that you wanna be engaging with.
Michael: Now, sometimes, I know my teams and other teams have used successfully some of the data just from AdWords. And we went and looked at, okay, which messages worked well for the audience that we got through AdWords? Can we apply that to our new programmatic campaigns? Do you think that that applies?
Kevin: Absolutely, it applies. And I think where people start to run into problems is when they start to move away from common sense, which as we know is a common best practice, to stay away from common sense. Yeah, why not? I mean, just because…I mean, there’s a couple things going on there. The first is you’re in a directive intent environment with search, since somebody has already told you what they’re interested in, and you’re just reacting to that. So it’s a different scenario than generating awareness. And by no means is that the only place you should be going. But if that’s the best place that you have to start, then, of course, start there.
You’ve got a thousand times more information than people who were doing this five years ago. So you do have enough information. You just don’t want to make a decision because you don’t know how to interpret it yet.
A lot of engagements, a lot of search people, have started with, and you know this too because you’ve lived in that world. You start with…you start working with a client engagement and search, and suddenly you’re doing all their media buying and planning because you’re really good at what you do. You’ve grown that relationship with your client because you’ve built this trust relationship with them. But it’s not just the trust relationship. It’s that you’ve figured out how to use the knowledge from one campaign and apply it to another. And that’s ultimately what people are trying to do across the board.
In plenty of instances, you know, we’ve taken search information and used it to help build other campaigns, you know, and, in recent years, taking a lot of the social data that’s coming our way and using that for awareness initiatives. But, you know, it’s really funny how 10 or 15 years ago, we had this horrible problem in the business where people were just addicted to the last click. And the last click usually was paid search that generated revenue. We see that now with clients that ask questions like, “Hey, let’s just do the stuff that’s working really, really well.” “Like, well, it’s all working really, really well. It works really well together.” “But no, no, let’s just do the last click stuff. You know, let’s just do the retargeting.” And then you have to sort of take a step back to explain that, you know, you need to build the cookie pool.
You can’t just keep working with people that you have now. So, yeah, you can take cues from search. You can take cues from social media. I take tons of cues from paid and unpaid media initiatives because it’s a wonderful thing to have access to all this information, you know? I was watching this thing this morning… But the thing to remember, I guess, so I was watching this thing this morning. Somebody was asking, I can’t remember who, “Why do you bother making the bed in the morning? You’re just gonna get back into it at night.”
So, of course, I searched for it. And sure enough, there’s a video from a Navy SEAL on Business Insider talking about why you should make your bed in the morning.
And the reason that you should make the bed in the morning is it gives you something to do every day and an immediate sense of accomplishment that requires absolutely or little no effort. That, to me, is a great metaphor for getting started with some of these digital initiatives. Don’t get caught in everything you have to do. Do one thing, get it started, get it moving. And once you have that motion, once you have that process moving, that’s a great way to kick things off. And you start off with a great sense of accomplishment.
Michael: In your articles, you teach that researching media channels is where you’re going to find strengths and weaknesses. And so for the best practice that we have of defining media channels that apply to your messaging and your market, what are some of the ways we can define those for programmatic?
Kevin: So when you say define media channels, are you talking about selecting vendors, or are you just talking about where you should be positioning and buying and that sort of thing?
Michael: Where we should be buying our placements
Define Media Channels that Apply to Your Messaging and Market
Kevin: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if our approach is unique or not. We do it a little bit…you know… You always sound like a pompous ass when you say, “Well, we do it differently.” So I use what’s called bake-off approach, meaning that we’ll look at multiple different channels, look at multiple vendors, figure out a dollar amount that makes sense across the various different channels and test them out. And what that allows us to do is to give an apples-to-apples comparison to where these placement opportunities really exist. And that seems to work really well.
But the challenge in that is figuring out exactly what dollar amount makes sense and whether or not you’re spreading yourself too thin. But that’s what, you know…that’s why you work with really smart media people because they can figure that stuff out. Where I see clients failing in this is that they’re perpetually vendor hopping. And there’s a fine line…just like Steven Wright said, “There’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore like an idiot.” There’s a fine line between a solid test or a multi-placement test and vendor-hopping like an idiot, because if you’re doing the latter, you’re not really collecting useful information. You’re just going from one vendor to the next. And you’re not really going to be learning much.
Michael: You mentioned earlier retargeting. And DPAs and, what, Facebook exchange, website custom audiences, they help us win back prospects who are wandering away. They help us cross-sell. They help us, well, frankly, increase purchase frequency. We know we need to implement retargeting early in our campaigns. You mentioned that earlier. What is some advice to doing that right?
Kevin: Yeah, so just like the airlines who are testifying or appearing. I guess they’re not testifying. It’s not a trial. They’re witnesses.
Michael: Not yet.
Kevin: Yeah. No, they’re witnesses, you know, just not to go completely off the reservation on this… But there is this New Jersey senator yesterday…not a senator, congressman. He said yesterday…you know, they’re so ill informed. One of them said, and I kid you not, “Why are you keeping the seats smaller? Americans keep getting bigger.” And then camera pans around to every airline head, and they’re like, “We at Alaska Airlines are making bigger seats for bigger people.” You know, it’s just the dumbest. I’m sorry, what was the question?
Michael: Yeah, I was just going to leave you hanging there, Kevin, and see how you’re going to tie the airlines back into retargeting early in our campaigns. But I’ll give you a prompt.
Implement Retargeting Early in Your Campaigns
Kevin: “Stop trying to wedge that ever bigger strategy into that smaller and smaller seat,” is where it’s gonna go with that. Oh my. Yeah, so the pitfalls of retargeting, it really is the big butt in the small chair. I’m lobbying for better regulations frequency capping, because you really are…I mean, at some point, you’re beating your customer over the head with either something they already bought or that they’ve eliminated from their consideration set. And this is one of those things that, if you just look at the data and you just look at…and it’s not even last click. You can have complicated and same little funnels that show you, well if…you know?
And I love Cole Haan shoes, by the way. I think if everybody would just shut up and start wearing Cole Haan ZEROGRANDs, the world would be a better place because they’re so comfortable.
Michael: We’ll try and provide a link here in the transcript
Kevin: Yeah, and if you click on that link, be prepared to see a lot of Cole Haan shoe ad for the rest of your life.
Michael: Well, I mean, I know I think there was an issue with frequency capping before. You know, I remember back in the day with Market Motive, part of our ads, and I think we were using AdRoll at the time, and it had Avinash’s picture. Avinash Kaushik was one of our founders. And his photo drew a lot of clicks, and we had great conversion on that. But the problem was is that AdRoll, bless their hearts, didn’t control…they had frequency capping, but what they didn’t control is how they showed up multiple times on a single page. And so we started getting these screenshots that people were tweeting screenshots where Avinash’s face was showing up nine times on a single page, trying to pull this back.
But I think the real question here is, typically, people try to do retargeting later because they think it’s complex or it’s difficult. Where do you plant the cookie? I mean, you mentioned earlier, you know, build up your cookie base. I think the best practice that we’re really trying to hone in here is to start retargeting early, early in your campaign. It’s okay to start it early.
Kevin: Yes, if you are at an unholy…millions and millions of impression volume, sure, right away, start it, no problem. But I think where people try to… I think it varies according to the size and scope of the buy and the overall structure of the media plan.
Michael: So, along those lines, a lot of advertisers are saying early performance data is one of the best signals you can use to optimize a campaign performance. What are some of the steps to ad testing right out of the gate?
Test Early in a Campaign
Kevin: So early results, how are we defining early results?
Michael: In other words, instead of putting out a single message or a single display, we’re going to go out of the gate testing A and B in terms of our content.
Kevin: Okay. And how would we categorize early results? It’s in the first hour, the first minute, the first…
Michael: Well, I think the idea is to get statistical significance before we make a decision. But I think the best practice here that is proposed for the standard is that, when we go out with a campaign, we don’t start with candidate A and run it for, you know…until it gets some kind of return. We actually go out with two candidates right out of the gate and start testing immediately.
…when you’re making decisions entirely from that perspective, you end up with a Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad.
Kevin: Yeah, I mean, as long as you build…you know, this goes back to step one. But as long as you build your audience profiles correctly, constructed your audience engagement correctly, in practice, you can be going to 100 different people, the same profile. Or let’s say, for the sake of argument, 100,000 people with very…clearly siloed into their audience categories and be testing 5,000 different creatives with them. And in theory, that would give you…it might not give you statistically significant information. But in practice, it might give you some really good information.
So, you know, theoretically, a dandelion can…in theoretical physics, dandelion can hold an elephant over a cliff. And practical knowledge tells us that’s probably not going to be happening. So I’m a big fan of applying practical knowledge. If you have the ability to scale creative, and there’s plenty of tools out there and things like that. And I won’t get into them because I’m an endorser, but there are plenty of ways to scale creative that will allow you to do these sorts of things. And I would say go out with…you know, if you can go out with 50, go with 50.
Two seems like a really low number to me. But the other thing…I really caution people to know this…don’t assign an arbitrary number to, you know, to your initiative. And, you know, folks like Avinash are much better at figuring these things out in terms of what, you know, statistically appropriate numbers are. But I don’t want people to… We see this happening now a lot. But I don’t have enough information. Yeah, you do. You’ve got a thousand times more information than people who were doing this five years ago. So you do have enough information. You just don’t want to make a decision because you don’t know how to interpret it yet.
I mean, to me, that’s the biggest problem, because a disproportionately small number of people in this world have the aptitude to really understand numbers the way they should and interpret them. You know, at the end of the day, the chief marketing officers are really only interested in the latest sexy creative. And, you know, when you have that, when you’re making decisions entirely from that perspective, you end up with a Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad.
And, you know, and the other extreme is where you get absolutely nothing done because you’re sitting around trying to analyze the data. And then, you know, you have situations that, you know, that happened recently with Google and the scandal of ads appearing at bad places. You know, the reality is…and, you know, the story broke, and I think that was…I saw you at SMX. That was like three or four weeks now, right?
So, I mean, that morning, I was sitting with a writer from The Wall Street Journal, and I was trying to explain to him, you know, because it’s incumbent upon the practitioners, I think, in space, e.g., you and me, to sort of explain to the mass consuming press that you’re not reporting this correctly. And they weren’t. They weren’t reporting it correctly. They were taking mass hysteria to a whole new level with a load of nonsense. And I’m sitting there trying to explain this to one of the guys in the journal, and I was speaking on background. So, you know, I didn’t wanna be quoted.
But I’m like, “You have to understand that there’s a couple things going on here.” The first is the number of actual ads that would appear against this inventory is so infinitesimally small that it was hard to explain to an average person…it’s hard for them understand how small that number is. Somewhere in the middle of “We’re only looking at data” and “We’re making only gut decisions” lies the rationale for building a solid campaign. So I guess that’s a very long-winded version of don’t just assign an arbitrary number. And I realize it’s helpful to just…somebody is going to at the end of the day, “What’s the number?” Don’t just sign an arbitrary number, you know? Go with something that you’re comfortable with.
Michael: That wraps up the comments on best practices. I wanted to ask you or invite you to freeform a little bit in terms of what are other, you know, Kevin’s tips for…or general guidelines for what we should practice when we approach programmatic buying?
Kevin: All right. So, when you buy your airline ticket…
Michael: I sense a subtext here.
A Word About Stability in Strategy
Kevin: I think when you when you’re launching these initiatives, the biggest mistake I see people making is just getting lost in forever trying to have the best, newest thing. And I understand the culture that this comes from. And the culture that it comes from is the senior marketing person or the CMO or currently in power, and I spend an awful lot of time with these folks, I’m allowed to poke fun occasionally in good humor. But, you know, they want the best, the greatest thing, the new thing. And it’s natural to want that. And it’s natural to be in pursuit of that. And you should be in pursuit of that.
Where I see people…and it’s probably in the interest of shareholders. It’s probably in the interest of the people who are running the marketing initiatives, who on the client side, their bonuses and their performance is tied to how well they do and how well their marketing does, how much money it generates. So all these things are tied together, where the advice that I continually give is that have a strategy, and that’s one of the reasons that one of the driving forces of spending years wanting to do this book and doing research about, you know, how do you write a good strategy book, build a strategy around it, and don’t spend your every day chasing your tail, trying to find a little bit the next best thing. There’s a way to do that. And there’s a there’s an appropriate timeline for doing that so that you’re not…
And it’s different for everyone. It’s really contingent upon the resources that you have available to you. But if you’re constantly chasing down the next thing, your entire…you know, I’m helping a client through this now. And it’s not a fun process, but they’re constantly working on implementations. They’re constantly onboarding new stuff. And 80% of it is redundant. And you have to be… You know, if you’re watching [the TV series] “Silicon Valley” and you’re enjoying that show, I mean, I absolutely adore it, because so much of it is true. Companies that you start working with today pivot and they’re doing something else tomorrow. And you have to…when you’re building strategy around who you’re partnering with and the tools that you’re using, you have to account for that. So you always need a backup plan.
But if you’re constantly changing vendors and you’re constantly onboarding new things and a lot of it is redundant, you’re not really accomplishing anything. There’s a lot of activity, but you’re not really doing anything good for your brand, your customers, or your own mental health, I think, in a lot of instances, because you’re just perpetually doing this.
So in a lot of instances, and it’s a difficult conversation to have, and I might be wealthier if I could somehow magically abandon logic reason and just take people’s money, but I can’t do that. If I do that, I just go work for a holding company. Ooh, slam.
Oh, goodness gracious. “Hey, here’s your pitch team, all the senior people in the room.” “They’re gone. We won the business.” “All right, these are all the 22-year-old VPs that we just appointed.” And that’s the people who are actually going to work on your campaign. Anyway…
Michael: I think people don’t realize the experience that you have when you’re saying these things. You’ve seen it. You’ve been there.
Kevin: Been there, done that, you know? Well, I always joke around like, yeah. So, I mean, it’s just really interesting to me to have the conversation, like, “Look, all right. Well, let’s look at an annual plan.” I know it’s blasphemy to think about an annual plan. And it doesn’t fit with the perpetual pivot model that we exist in. But we need to have time to collect information. We need to have time to build a successful strategy. And if we’re perpetually implementing the technology du jour, all that does is interrupt the process. All that does is interrupt what we’re trying to accomplish.
So, let’s roadmap, and I love that word, let’s roadmap how we’re going to do this either annually, every six months, the depth at which we want to have a very close look at what’s available, what’s out there, and what people are using so that we don’t have, you know…and that, you know, it’s not his or her fault. CMO was popping into your office going, “Hey, we need this, because…” Well, he’s doing that because the CEO saw it on the morning news or read it in Advertising Age. So he sticks his head into the CMO’s office, and she goes down to the VP’s office and says, “We need this.” And before you know it, the 22-year-old intern is making decisions about technology every other day and looking for their career, because she thinks if that’s how the world works, and nothing’s really getting accomplished other than you look really busy because you’re constantly onboarding new stuff.
So, like, inviting me to freestyle is like inviting Robin Williams to just go off.
Michael: The experience and scenarios you’re painting are very real. And there is a lot of this thrashing around where somebody goes and they hear something. And, you know, even your restraint on naming tools is actually appreciated here, because the audience, you know, who are trying to implement this are “Why didn’t Kevin name any tools?” Well, it’s because sometimes somebody comes up with this, and it implies that we can now hire folks who studied, you know, social services, God bless them, to come in and run our campaigns because the tool will take care of everything. And that’s where the confusion happens. And without a strategic plan, I think you’re right on. So it’s useful and it’s appreciated.
So sage wisdom from Kevin Ryan. Thank you, Kevin, for this. I know that we’ve taken enough of your time today. For our listeners, Check out Kevin’s Book Taking Down Goliath on Amazon. Follow him on twitter at @KevinMRyan and of course reach out to Kevin’s team at his Motivity Marketing to see if you can get him to help you set a digital marketing and media strategy for your brand.
I’m your host, Michael Stebbins. And you’ve been listening to the OMCP Online Marketing Best Practices podcast. OMCP maintains a certification standard for the online marketing industry in cooperation with industry leaders just like Kevin. Join us inside of OMCP to maintain your certification, get special offers, and engage with other certified professionals, universities, and training programs that teach to OMCP standards. So we’ll see you inside of OMCP as a certified professional where we’ll be learning and improving our professional careers and teams together.