10 Things RTB Rookies Can Learn From SEM Vets

If I were to describe to you a digital media channel in which marketers bid on ad inventory in an auction-based model, would you think of paid search? Of course! But this also describes the relatively new online display category of real-time bidding (RTB) in which banner impressions are sold in a similar fashion.

eMarketer recently released Programmatic Advertising Forecast and Future Growth Trends, in which it projects that RTB digital display ad spending in the US will reach $9.03 billion by 2017 and will represent 29.0% of total U.S. digital display ad spending.

RTB spending

Although RTB has been around for some time, it has really only been a major consideration for about three years and only gained mass adoption in the last year or two.

So, in essence, 95% of RTB buyers (also called traders, as their tech stack is commonly called a trading desk) are basically rookies in their profession. In fact, if you have more than three years of experience in RTB, you’re about as proficient as they come. In paid search, on the other hand, one would be considered a knowledgeable yet junior marketer with only three years under your belt.

The following are ten things we’ve learned in paid search over the years (from a thousand cuts and bruises) that RTB buyers can learn from.

1. It’s All About Granularity

The best way to optimize biddable media is to have access to as many levers as possible and pull them as hard and as often as needed in order to generate the highest return. For example, search marketers can set bid adjustments based on certain variables we know about the search and searcher including the time of day, day of week, location, device, operating system, screen resolution, and other data points.

Getting deep into these granular settings are crucial into knowing the right bid to submit in order to maximize a search budget. Bid too much and you waste money that could be spent on more clicks — bid too little and you don’t reach the valuable consumers you want to engage. Get granular!

2. Creative Rotation Is Low-Hanging Fruit

One of the most fundamental best practices of paid search is to load multiple creative into each ad group and let the optimizers figure out which ad should be served at the right time. After each ad runs a couple thousand times, there’s enough significant data to declare a winner, and the system will being running that ad more often than the rest.

Even if the “winning” ad generates just a .1% higher return than the rest of the field, with every ad group running .1% more efficiently, it may equate to hundreds of thousands of dollars across the year for bid budget search spenders.

RTB tools (trading desks and DSPs — demand side platforms) have this same functionality. However, search creative is text based and it’s not very difficult to brainstorm a dozen new search ads and to quickly load them into the system.

The building blocks of RTB are banner ads which are much more complex and way more expensive to build. In fact, many RTB programs simply don’t have enough creative iteration to optimally A/B test. However, as more dollars flow into RTB, the lost opportunity costs will begin to justify this development.

3. Test. Optimize. Repeat.

This is the mantra of paid search marketers, and I feel this has definitely been heard loud and clear by RTB buyers. There shouldn’t be a single thing you know to be true other than the fact that you have to always be testing.

Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume the bids that are working today will be effective tomorrow. Don’t assume the creative that did well in one market will do well in the next one. Treat everything like it’s an experiment and you will always have the right mindset to be successful at biddable media.

4. Get Clear Goals Early

Every marketer has to answer to someone, whether it’s the CMO internally or an external client. There are many different potential goals you can try to accomplish with your channel’s budget, so make sure you receive very clear instructions from the top before you even start.

All paid search veterans have experienced this issue: either they assume the goals are the same as last time, the goals are a bit unclear, or the person who gave them the incorrect goals isn’t the top stakeholder. Then they had to sit in an awkward meeting and explain why the budget was spent for Goal X when it should have been Goal Y.

Do not put yourself in a compromising position. Get your goals very early in the process and make sure every stakeholder knows what the plan is.

5. Push The Envelope

This is very simple. If you aim for good, you’ll do fair. If you aim for great, you’ll do good. If you aim for excellence, you’ll do great. And if you aim for perfection, you just might be excellent. No matter how well you think your campaigns are doing, push even harder.

What we’ve learned in Search is that you can always improve performance. Even when you’ve tested and tested and feel that you’ve hit a point of diminishing returns, paid search veterans know that we can still find more efficiency in our programs.

RTB buyers will have to learn this lesson fully. It’s easy to optimize an unoptimized campaign, but very hard to optimize a highly optimized one.

6. Sometimes It’s Worth Paying More For Quality

Not every click is equal in paid search, and neither is every ad impression in RTB. Tracking CTR or total impressions/clicks as a success metric is a junior mistake. Those numbers don’t mean a thing if you’re not driving business goals.

Yes, improving the ROI calculation of Return – Cost can be done by lowering the Cost, but affecting the Return is the best long-term strategy. It doesn’t mean you should run out and start buying the most expensive inventory, but the takeaway here is not to only buy the cheapest impressions available. Find what works and learn how to evaluate the proper bid for every variable.

7. Influencing Site Design & Landing Pages Is Part Of Your Job

Search marketers may be able to drive quality clicks at a very efficient price — but their job doesn’t stop there, and neither does your job if you are an RTB buyer. At the end of the day, you have to prove your channel’s value to your boss or client, and that means conversion activity.

You cannot hide behind a phrase such as, “Well, I can only lead the horse to water,” because it’s also your job to at least try to get it to drink. The most successful SEM pros fight for site/landing page optimizations that complement their activities in order to ensure positive paid search numbers.

8. Learn Your Tools Inside & Out

One of the main differences between good paid search marketers and great ones is how well they know their toolset. Many people just learn 50% of the tools required for 90% of their job; but, the real skill comes from knowing every feature and every hidden menu and leveraging those tools to generate incremental performance. Like search marketers, RTB buyers also use a technology stack with multiple platforms to perform their duties.

I challenge all of you to regularly go through your tools and see if you can explain every button or option to a colleague. If you can’t, make a note and ask your vendor rep to explain it thoroughly. I’ve literally asked both SEM and RTB pros about a feature of their platform that appears on every page of the UI, and sometimes, they react as if they’ve never even seen that button there before.

9. Account Setup Is An Art Unto Itself

After countless iterations of campaigns and continuously adding ad groups on the fly, sometimes an account can get messy — so it’s important to always have a strong process for implementing new elements.

The problem with not keeping your account organized is that it will be hard for others jump in and help if needed (in the same way that you can’t find anything in your friend’s cluttered apartment). Also, tasks like reporting and budget allocation can begin to get unwieldy if campaigns aren’t in order. Do yourself a favor and make sure you’re working optimally!

10. Don’t Expect Anyone Else To Know What You’re Talking About

Paid search is a very deep discipline — an art and science, if you will — with its own jargon and approach. I’ve seen paid search marketers sit in meetings and rant on and on about SEM minutia such as Impression Share, the Quality Score algorithm, and other topics that sound like gibberish to the rest of the team.

As RTB evolves, there will be the same set of inner workings which only you and other RTB buyers will understand. If you’re ever in a setting where you have to explain what you do, make sure you distill it down (not dumb it down) to the essence of what you’re trying to say and remember not to use too much RTB-only terminology. Search marketers have learned how to talk about their field in a way that most people can follow, and RTB buyers should do that, as well.