A Closer Look at Audience Buy in China

The latest buzz in media has definitely been the concept of “audience buy.” This buying concept essentially changes the operating model between brands, media agencies, and publishers. The traditional way of digital media buying usually consists of media agencies buying display ads directly with publishers. Agencies determined which publishers to buy based on matching the publisher user profile and brand target audience profile.

The old way focused on reaching the target audience through publishers, hence the term media buying. But the digital ecosystem is enormous and ever-growing, and consumers are continually seeking content across multiple publishers.

For cost reasons, we obviously can’t buy from all those publishers. Here’s where audience buy comes in because what brands care about most are the digital consumer behaviors across different publishers. Therefore, our focus in audience buy is placed entirely on buying the “right” digital behavior based on various targeting technologies and cross publisher ad serving.

All this sounds great conceptually, but is audience buy really a one size fits all solution for brands? Is programmatic audience buying really going to kill direct media buy? Let’s take a closer look at the audience buy model and evaluate.

Evaluating media objectives

First let’s evaluate if audience buy is really the right buying model for your brand. We can determine that by looking at the primary digital media objectives of the brand. From an industry perspective, FMCG brands are primarily focused on branding across mainstream digital channels; finance, insurance, and many B2B brands are focused on lead generation through some sort of a registration process.

With branding as a primary objective, FMCG brands are the least suitable for the audience buy model because most of these brands have traditionally always worked with large mainstream digital channels such as portals and online video sites. Now these brands will still want to maintain a direct relationship with publishers for PR bargaining power and this is especially true in China.

Another reason is that lots of publishers in China are realizing the growing popularity of audience buy, hence they’ve invested a lot in various content cooperation efforts in recent years. Content cooperation can range from making a micro-film to creating a brand sponsored column or BBS activity. Publishers will often bundle in display ads with content cooperation, so brands still see value in direct media buy. But that doesn’t mean that FMCG brands can ignore audience buy completely; it can still serve a purpose in campaigns where budget is limited and the brand wants to support the main communication channel with a mixture of different targeted publishers.

However, lead generation brands are very suitable for the audience buy model. The key reasons are these brands focus on accurate targeting and action-oriented results. Many B2B brands have a very niche target, for example construction, occupational safety, or IT hardware. While many of them conduct direct buying with category verticals, the more effective lead-gen channels have always been performance based such as SEM. Hence, the benefits of using audience buy for B2B brands are two-fold: wide targeting options, and cost efficiency.

Traditionally, B2B targeted their consumers online through buying only category verticals instead of large mainstream portals. However, that severely limits ad serving impressions because it only catches consumers when they are browsing the vertical site itself. With audience buy, we can target these niche consumers even when they are browsing portals and other non-related websites based on their historical browsing behavior.

From a cost perspective, most publishers charge on a CPM basis, but what these B2B brands care about is not impressions but leads. Hence, audience buy can utilize CPC or even CPA method for the long term. This places the focus entirely on the action and sales lead instead of paying for displaying the ad.

Audience buy options in China

Now that we have evaluated if audience buy is suitable for your brand, let’s look at some different buying methods in China for your consideration. I’d like to categorize these buying methods primarily by targeting methodology:

1. Media list is one of the simplest ways for targeting, which is through a list of publishers. This method is usually used to target multiple relevant mainstream category verticals covering fashion, food, automotive, and IT industries. However, if your target audience is very niche and won’t be found on mainstream verticals, then consider some of the methods below.

2. Contextual targeting is based on setting a combination of keywords that resembles the brand’s target audience and then the ads are served if the keyword appears on the website content. This method is usually used to raise brand awareness by extending the reach to consumers who are actively browsing relevant content.

3. Search history works by tracking a user’s browsing history in the search engine based on cookies, which then serves the relevant ads that matches the user’s search intent. Both Baidu Web Union and Google Display Network utilize this method.

4. Transaction history is a form of targeting that rides on the booming growth of e-commerce in China in the past few years. Since Taobao is one of the dominant B2C e-commerce channels in China, many Taobao and Tmall brands use this type of ad to boost their e-commerce sales. Because if a consumer has bought similar products before, then the ad is very relevant.

5. Cross media browsing history is the most sophisticated type of targeting using a combination of a DSP, SSP, and DMP platforms. All the targeting data are gathered from cookies across ads served on multiple publishers. These cookies are then analyzed and each individual consumer cookie gets numerous interest and industry tags. Hence ads are served when the cookie browsing history matches what the brand desires. Now in western markets, the DMP platforms that store cookies are relatively mature. But in China, it’s still in its infancy and most of the DMP platforms have evolved out of ad network vendors and other ad serving vendors.

6. ISP browsing history is mostly likely unique to China, as in western markets it would be considered an infringement of privacy. The mechanism works by cooperating with ISPs on entire user browsing history, and then the ISPs serve the ads through a pop-up that is non-native to the publisher. The ads will load even before the website, because the ISP intercepts the request and serves the ad first.

As you can see from the numerous interesting targeting methods and companies, audience buy is certainly a growing trend in China. But before jumping on the bandwagon, we must closely examine our own digital media objectives. Then make an informed decision based on what’s really important to your brand.

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