The More Media Buying Changes, the More It Stays the Same

Ten years ago this month, I took over ClickZ’s Media Buying column, and I’ve been writing it every week since. There’s no question that looking back at the last decade feels surreal: so much has changed, both in my personal life (a marriage, a new country, two children, seven moves), and in the online advertising industry. And yet, much has also stayed the same.

What’s different is the “where” of placing digital ads. In the early 2000s, mobile marketing was in its infancy, blogs were largely perceived as a foreign concept with a peculiar name, and video advertising was only just beginning to hit its stride. The technology we now rely on was the stuff of dreams, the tools we use daily to plan campaigns, a fantasy. Throughout these critical developments, however, the “how” of digital media buying has remained surprisingly unchanged – three tenets of the business in particular. Not only have these endured, but they may be more important now than ever.

1. Research. In the days preceding media planning software, online marketing professionals spent much of their time scouring the web for opportunities befitting their expectant clients. Always reach and frequency were top of mind, but so too were the formats that were being offered. Making an informed decision about a potential media partner was about selecting a site that would effectively connect a client’s brand with its audience, but it was also about finding ways to reuse existing ad sizes, saving some room in the budget for experimenting with new formats, and taking calculated risks on sites we hadn’t worked with before.

Although this type of information is more accessible than it used to be, intelligent technology can’t replace the need for good old-fashioned foraging. Buyers and planners should always be aware of the landscape within which they operate, taking mental note of site launches, acquisitions, and mergers; new data on the effectiveness of ad sizes and formats; and new ways by which they could be reaching their target audiences. Competition and clutter online make this kind of research vital to success. Just like it used to be.

2. Relationships. Regardless of how much our industry has evolved, whether it’s the degree to which our daily work is now automated or the cerebral shift from buying sites to buying audiences, the importance of maintaining good relationships with publishers will never be diminished.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you disagreed. Today, ad exchanges are making it easy to place ads without having to chase down sales reps; the details of a campaign taking shape in a digital realm governed by a technology that appears to meet your every need. But if a human element isn’t important, why do exchanges list “high-quality customer service” as a value proposition? And how many campaigns consist of automated exchange buys alone?

The fact of the matter is that the campaigns that make the biggest impact on consumers are almost always the product of a strong relationship with a site publisher. They’re the culmination of months of experimentation, or the pinnacle of years of mutual effort. They’re the thing that both you and your trusted sales rep have always hoped could be achieved, and that couldn’t have been realized without a reciprocal understanding of each others’ wants, needs, and limitations. We aren’t so insulated yet that we can presume to find success without the help of those who know the online publishing space best.

3. Relevance. More than any other principle of media buying and planning, relevance has been and will always be an inimitable part of every campaign. Without it, consumers have no need or desire to recall an ad, engage with a brand, or take action. In days past, the idea of relevance was largely tied to search marketing, for which it has always been at once a requirement and a promise. As new technology emerged that allowed marketers to customize ad creative to consumers’ interests and search history, the value of relevance increased.

That technology continues to facilitate campaign relevance today, but it isn’t always a guarantee. Buyers have to work at creating it. Beyond employing behavioral, contextual targeting, and DSPs, and customizing campaigns for audience segments, we must remember that, at the end of the day, consumers are online to interact with publisher content, not with our ads. Every aspect of a campaign must deliver some relevance and value to the target customer, whether in the context of the site page, the time of day, the weather, or otherwise. If a marketer wants to be certain that something – the message copy, the ad format, the frequency – is well-received, every buy must be made with relevance in mind.

People say the more things change, the more they stay the same. If that’s true of anything, it’s the business of digital marketing. And we’re only just getting started.

Related reading

Vector graphic of a megaphone spewing out business themed items, such as a laptop, tablet, pen, @ symbol and smartphone