Performance Display for SEM Marketers

Back in the mid-2000’s, when Google, Yahoo, and MSN swept in and introduced basic display offerings, I was working at a full-service agency running a display team. I started hearing about display ads being run from the search marketing side of the room, and I got protective. I assumed that the search marketers didn’t know what they were doing when it came to banners.

Then I looked at the tools they were using and realized that I was dead wrong.

The search marketing team was simply better equipped than my team. While we were stuck using basic planning and audience tools in the hopes of locating people who might resemble our prospects, the search team was specifying exact parameters to identify prospects in ways that we never could.

It would seem that search marketing should have been the clear winner for years, but instead it is starting to hit a ceiling. Search engine marketing (SEM) is a very mature marketing tactic, and, as a result, the competition for keywords becomes harsher every day. The most expensive keywords are starting to break the $55 barrier; cost-per-click (CPC) numbers are only going to increase across the board.

Plus, search marketers still face the same creative limitation that they did back in 1996: text-only ads. What search marketer hasn’t fantasized about jumping into a world of images and color, as Dorothy did in “The Wizard of Oz”?

This ceiling doesn’t have to exist for search marketers. There are dynamic new paths to reach in-market consumers, and marketers can go down these paths without giving up the power of intent that makes SEM so effective.

Why Use Performance Display?

Imagine that you’re Nike, and you’re trying to acquire new customers for a new basketball shoe. Would you rather spend your marketing budget on buying prominent placements for eye-grabbing display ads across, or on placing ads in front of people who have recently expressed intent to buy new basketball shoes?

Search marketers, I know your answer already. And I’m the first to agree that buying inventory at a fixed cost-per-thousand (CPM), and then crossing your fingers and hoping that the right audience sees it, makes little sense.

But does it really make sense only to reach consumers with intent to buy via text ads that are strangled by a high CPC, or within the very limited window that consumers actually spend in the search channel?

The happy news for marketers is that there is now another approach. Performance display combines the power of intent, the scale of display, and the effectiveness of well-designed creatives. Better yet, it allows you to get the most out of every dollar of your spend.

What Is Performance Display?

At a base level, performance display is for campaigns with direct response goals, rather than for just branding or awareness. There are many forms this can take, but the most common are site retargeting and search retargeting, two tactics that remain surprisingly misunderstood.

Site retargeting is the practice of serving display ads to users who have already visited your site, in the hopes of compelling them to return. It’s a very effective practice that can achieve amazing results when you factor in lots of data points. The data-intense version, known as programmatic site retargeting, retargets users based on the referral site, the date and time of the visit, on-site behavior, and CRM data to create a sophisticated picture of each site visitor and how much it’s worth to try to bring her back.

But perhaps even more exciting for traditional SEM marketers is the rise of search retargeting. In essence, search retargeting extends SEM beyond the text-only listings that appear around search engine results. Once users leave Google, Bing, or another site on which they’ve performed a search, search retargeting can target them with display ads based on the keywords for which they just searched. In other words, the power of intent doesn’t have to begin and end with traditional SEM. Search retargeting campaigns can be built around the very same keywords that drive traditional SEM campaigns – and the creatives can actually be…well, creative.

In addition to taking advantage of the power of intent, search retargeting companies will provide dynamic creatives, inserting into the creative the keyword for which the user searched.

In my agency days, we were weaving stories about how search and display could work together, but up until now there have been few tactical steps that could actually be taken. Search retargeting is the first practice that finally brings them together, and it has search marketers excited about getting access to the display team’s budget.

Real-Time Bidding Means Real-Time Results

All of these performance display tactics are made possible by one key technology: real-time bidding (RTB). RTB gives marketers the ability to bid on a single impression served to a specific (though entirely anonymous) user, and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger part of how display media is bought and sold. It’s predicted that by 2015 almost 50 percent of display ads will be bought or sold through RTB exchanges.

With RTB at our disposal, there’s no longer an excuse for buying blocks of impressions on a site or collection of sites. After all, why would you want to target a site in the hopes of reaching a specific user when you can now target that user directly?

When you use search retargeting on an RTB exchange, you’re essentially bidding on keywords, just as in traditional SEM. Only now you’re bidding for the chance to serve a relevant ad at a price that’s likely to be lower than what you’d pay to serve your text ad against that keyword on Google. With search retargeting powered by RTB, you’re serving the right ads to the right people at the right price.


Display has come a long way. And it’s reached this point by learning more and more from SEM. Among other things, this means that SEM marketers are uniquely positioned to take advantage of performance marketing. SEM teams are already familiar with the tools and already appreciate the power of reaching a user based on online behavior.

It’s no longer a search-vs.-display world. It’s a whole new, targeted world with new techniques and creatives driving innovation. Are you ready?

SEM image on home page via Shutterstock.

This article was originally published in SES Magazine – Chicago in November 2012.

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