Fail Road SignProgrammatic buying, driven by real-time bidding (RTB), is the fastest growing segment of digital marketing today. But it isn’t ready yet for today’s B2B marketer.

Time and time again, B2B marketers fall prey to a wonderful sounding sales pitch for their demand generation plan that goes something like this:

“We use 100′s of data points and sophisticated technology that optimizes every single impression in your campaign. Through our connections to every major exchange, we evaluate billions of impressions across millions of sites every day to find the exact audience and inventory you need at a fraction of the cost you would otherwise pay.”

Wow, sign me up, right? Cost-effective, constantly optimized, highly targeted. Get this program live, I’m taking a vacation!

And then you see the results. You can count the number of leads on one hand. You have to add another decimal place to your typical reports just to see your performance!

How did all of this targeting and optimization fail so badly?

You pick up the phone and quickly get a list of reasons the program is under-performing and some things you can do to improve results:

  • You need new creative. According to your vendor, your current creative is visually bland and you need a much stronger call to action.
  • You need a new landing page with a shorter form and a better offer. Your vendor requests you add some sort of incentive offer and justifies it based on how targeted the media is.
  • You can’t ignore view-through results! You need a promotional unit on your homepage and other key pages with the same offer you are running in the banner. Your vendor’s analytics shows that people are seeing your ad and coming to your site without clicking, but since they can’t find the offer they were looking for, the campaign is actually delivering 1,000s of people a day that just turn and leave.
  • Your brand awareness is low. You need to give the program time to run and build frequency and recognition with the audience.
  • Finally, the system simply hasn’t run long enough to fully optimize the program. Be patient, the system is learning and results are improving, even if you can’t see the impact yet.

Frustrated, you wrap up the call, stand up and it hits you: they never expressed any surprise at the results. Instead, they calmly pushed all of the performance issues back to you.

The Real Reason It Didn’t Work

Most likely, your program did not fail because of your creative or landing pages. You’ve already proven they are effective in other targeted buys. Instead, it failed for two key reasons:

1. The Data Actually Sucked
Programmatic buys are only as targeted as the data they are based on, but the data leaves a lot to be desired. A recent Digiday article shows even basic data like gender is wrong 30% to 35% of the time, a small improvement over just an outright guess!

If you are interested in seeing what information companies have about you, go to BlueKai. When I reviewed my profile, 90% of the data I looked at was wrong. The more granular (and valuable) the data point, the more likely you are too see issues.

If your program was targeted with data like that, it never stood a chance.

2. Context Was Completely Ignored
B2B demand generation marketers face challenge here their branding and B2C peers do not: you have a complex message to deliver. Even if you don’t have a registration form, the brief impact of a banner just won’t cut it. You need to capture and hold someone’s attention. You need to get them engaged.

Engaging requires the audience to shift their focus to you and context (i.e. the topic or focus of the site and page where your ad runs) is a proxy for where their current focus is and, more importantly, how big the change is.

If someone is on a surfing site, getting them to watch a video about help desk management software is a huge ask. Unfortunately, in network, exchange or programmatic buys, this is exactly what often happens and it is the second reason why your program fails.

I had an opportunity to run an interesting test a few years ago comparing performance of the exact same audience on key targeted sites and across a network. The network results have been even worse in subsequent (unpublished) tests that included a registration step.

Putting Programmatic Buying In Its B2B Place

Today, because of these issues, programmatic buys (including any buys through DSPs and networks that use the same inventory sources) still only warrant a tactical role and limited budget in B2B demand generation programs. There are useful tactical roles you can begin testing, including:

1. Retargeting
As long as you follow these retargeting guidelines, retargeting will quickly establish itself as a consistent, always-on element of your programs and it is perfect tactic for programmatic buying.

2. Reaching Small and Specific Audiences
If you are targeting a list of email addresses using CRM retargeting or key target companies through a partner like Demandbase, programmatic buys are often the only way to get the scale you need to be effective (although an increasing number of larger publishers are offering this targeting in their own site as well).

Although this approach may not capture leads cost effectively, with a significant weight against a small audience, you can see a measurable increase in demand. Company-based targeting with a control group makes this particularly easy to measure.

Looking Ahead

In coming years, expect programmatic buying to play a larger role in your B2B marketing programs as data, contextual targeting, management platforms and available inventory continue to improve. But for today, don’t fall prey to the sales pitch.

Your Turn

Do you see other challenges with programmatic buying in B2B or do you have a perspective on when these issues will be solved? Share it in the comments below or with me on Twitter (@wittlake).

Have you had a different experience? If so, I’d love to hear more about it, please get in touch with me.

Photo Credit: fireflythegreat via Flickr cc