To Make Programmatic Targeting Better, First Learn Its Dirty Secrets

What is and isn’t working

Prior to being a CEO, I spent nearly two decades as a strategist at various creative and media agencies. The first step on any brief was always defining who the target audience was. I’ve done it in all sorts of different ways. From attitudinal segments where we use peoples’ thoughts, feelings and attitudes to usage-based segments where we focus on how much of a given product someone buys. And I’ve done behavior segments where behavior (often digital behavior) is used to define an audience.

The messaging, content and entire media plan then flowed from these segments.  Digital and programmatic promised that we could target these specific audiences and reach them more effectively.

Well, guess what? It didn’t work. The carefully crafted segments were rarely executed in digital or programmatic in the way I’d imagined. Why?

First, most of the data in those super-smart segments aren’t available in any digital or programmatic platform. What is available are simple demographics and off-the-shelf segments with attractive sounding names. But these often get Frankensteined together to create matches.

Second, even if the data was in the buying platforms, by the time you go from platform to platform, you’ve lost so much in translation that you probably won’t have a very big audience.

And finally, even if the data were in the system and it amounted to a significant audience, it takes time for that data to be updated, and people often move faster than the data updates.

But there is a way to make it better

First, you can use a broader range of data. Digital and programmatic love behavior data. Many believe it’s a purer kind of data because it’s about what people do and not what they say. This is true. But it is also limited.

For example, let’s say you are selling an electric car. You might want to reach people who believe that taking positive steps toward saving the environment is something to be proud of. That isn’t a behavior, it is a belief so it’s going to be hard to find in typical digital data. But it is possible to ask people about that belief on a large enough scale to find a significant enough target audience that shares that belief.

Digital and programmatic promised that we could target these specific audiences and reach them more effectively … It didn’t work.

You might argue that you could use behavior measures as proxies. You could look for people who are searching for information about electric cars, for example. While that might work, it’s more likely that by the time this data gets updated in the various systems, you’ve missed a significant portion of the consumer purchase window.  And at that point, you’re fighting with every other manufacturer for the same audience.

In addition, by only using behavior proxies, you are just capturing people who participate in that behavior (i.e., search for electric cars). With this approach, you might miss others who don’t perform the same search but are still high-quality targets.

Second, you could bypass all the handoffs and build an audience private marketplace directly on the supply side. This approach would eliminate the need to pass information across systems and enable an advertiser to build an audience at scale.

That’s what we did for our clients when our ENGINE Insights and ENGINE Media Exchange teams partnered up. The results so far have been promising.

Audiences that marry custom attitudinal data with behavior data perform better across all categories tested, and, in most categories, we are seeing significant double-digit improvements. And building private marketplaces, or PMPs, directly off of those segments ensures we can deliver the scale that most marketers require.

As we move toward more and more media being audience-based, now is the perfect time to understand the dirty secrets of the current approaches. Once we fully understand the limitations of current approaches, we will be able to augment them with new techniques to realize the promise of programmatic—matching everything we do to the exact right audience.

Kasha Cacy is ENGINE’s first global chief executive. She oversees the company’s 17 offices across North America, the UK, Europe and Asia Pacific, helping drive business growth for brand, publisher and agency partners globally.