Marketers Find New Ways to Buy Programmatic Ads Without Relying on User Data

Buyers are using metadata to target campaigns without using audiences

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Marketers and adtech firms have latched onto metadata to improve ad targeting on the web and connected television, as data quality worsens with cookie decline.

Metadata is data about the environment of the ad, said Mike O’Sullivan, co-founder of data firm Sincera. “It’s data that puts the transaction in context,” he said.

While metadata can refer to any signal in the bidstream, its recent applications often center around advanced contextual signals, like ads-to-content ratio and genre, which can direct marketers toward more premium inventory. 

The looming deadline of cookie deprecation has made looking for signals outside of audience data necessary. And advancements in artificial intelligence have made it possible for algorithms to ingest hundreds of these potential alternative signals and figure out which is best to power a campaign, on the web or elsewhere, O’Sullivan said.

​​”These signals have been historically underutilized because of an overreliance on user IDs,” he added.

Metadata in action

Rain the Growth Agency analyzed its log files and found that time of day, ZIP code and genre or channel were the primary drivers of conversions. Using these signals, the the agency ran a CTV campaign for a technology client looking to drive audiences to create accounts.

The campaign achieved customer acquisition costs 47% lower than the brand’s historical average and reduced the brand’s average CPMs (cost per thousand impressions) by 16%. 

About one-half of Rain the Growth Agency’s CTV clients are using metadata to target, and most see positive results. As a result, the agency is expanding tests to the rest of its CTV clients this year.

The pendulum swings away

Chalice Custom Algorithms, which has worked with Rain on metadata strategies, has roughly five clients that have found that metadata makes their targeting algorithms much more predictive of outcomes like brand lift, lifetime value and sales, said co-founder Ali Manning. The company began using metadata in the first quarter of last year.

Metadata is emerging as a new signal to find audiences as cookies expire on the web this year. It helps buyers find quality media programmatically—a growing priority for those experiencing traditional adtech methods result in too much long-tail, poor quality inventory. Exemplifying this pendulum swing away from pure audience targeting, The Trade Desk’s forthcoming SP500+ solution lets buyers target across a group of premium publishers.

“We’re not optimizing against an addressable human audience,” said David Nyurenberg, associate director of digital video at Rain the Growth Agency. “We’re looking at all the signals and [seeing] which signals correlate to conversion.”

More precise and quantitative targeting

Of course, targeting based on contextual signals is not new. Marketers can currently target off the IAB Tech Lab’s content taxonomy, which distinguishes content like sports from news.

But metadata allows for more precise and quantitative targeting. Sincera can compare the ads-to-content ratio on television shows like 2 Broke Girls, where 11% to 12% of the program’s runtime has ads, versus Cops, which is 17% ads, said O’Sullivan.

The signals can help brands still buy inventory on the web amid signal loss. Metadata can also be used to buy better media in CTV, which doesn’t typically use cookies, but where finding quality programmatic inventory can be difficult since most ads are bought directly.

“Demand-side platform algorithms will naturally optimize to long-tail publishers,” Nyurenberg said. “By removing the addressable audience piece, we were able to optimize against metadata [toward] premium inventory.”

But targeting with metadata in CTV has its limitations because not enough inventory is available programmatically to use a purely metadata strategy, said Robin Cohen, executive vice president of integrated media investment and planning at Rain the Growth Agency.

Nonetheless, metadata strategies represent the paradigm shift in programmatic advertising.

“Instead of knowing who the users are,” Manning said, “you have to profile the information you have about the impression.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rain the Growth Agency used algorithms from Chalice Custom Algorithms for a CTV campaign.

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