Programmatic Display Blunders Its Way Toward Scale

“Let’s just see how big we can get before we get bad.” – Jay Chiat

Of course, Chiat was talking about his company and the extent to which he could scale it before size started to affect the quality of the work product.  I’d like to apply that quote to programmatic display campaigns, and offer up the notion that so many of them are ham-handed in their approaches that they’re beginning to degrade user experience.

Retargeting has caught on to the point where it’s largely responsible for the growth in the digital display category.  But many retargeting advertisers spend good money trying to get in front of me with messages that at best are annoying and at worst make absolutely no sense at all and turn me off to the brand.

It has become standard practice for me to turn on Chrome’s incognito mode prior to visiting media vendor websites, largely because if I allow the kajillion external pixels to fire, I’ll be chased around the web with ads designed to get me to come back.  Last week I forgot, and had to go manually delete a cookie, lest I be asked at every opportunity to come back to the vendor’s website to sit through a demo I’ve already seen twice.

It’s understandable to say “I’d like to speak to anyone who has come to my website” with an ad campaign.  It’s much more cost-efficient to try to convert interested prospects than to pluck new prospects from the Internet ether.   However, that doesn’t mean that you can pixel every page of your website, run one ad against the cookies you drop and be done with it.  But that’s precisely what many retargeting advertisers do.  Buying what they’re selling won’t shut off the ads.  Moving down the funnel won’t change the message – and ads will continue to ask you to do things you’ve already done or consider things you’ve already considered.

It’s almost understandable in a B2B campaign that might have a limited audience.  When you do encounter a qualified prospect, it makes sense to want to continue to talk to them.  But consumer marketers are doing it, too.

Visiting a dealer website to find out when I’m next due for service somehow puts me in the “in market for a car” bucket.  This means that at nearly every opportunity I might have to see a programmatic display ad, I’ll see something from the auto brand that I just purchased a few months ago, trying to sell me on new “deals.”  Of course, actually clicking on any of these ads will drop me off at step one of a configurator with no explanation or sign of the promised “deals.”  Sigh.

Retargeting isn’t the only programmatic tactic to prioritize scale over consumer experience.  I’ve also taken to entering incognito mode before looking at gift recommendations my friends send me.  Like many of you, sometimes I like to get a little help when figuring out what I might give to my wife on her birthday, or what I might bring home to brighten my daughter’s day.  And I’m finding that clicking on some of these product recommendations instantly changes my demographic makeup to whatever DMPs are informing bid/no bid decisions on the exchanges.  The ads following me around the web will change from their usual focus on things like 4-wheel-drive trucks and geeky tech products to CPG and communities for moms.

What this tells me is that programmatic buying outfits aren’t paying much attention to the nuances of the buying process.  DSPs (and sometimes agencies that are compensated based on how much they spend for their clients) aren’t incentivized to spend time on these nuances because doing so would focus their target and leave them less of a total audience size to prospect against.

But really, how difficult would it be to exclude people who have already bought, or serve up a different message to people who demonstrate through their website activity that they’re already a customer?  How tough would it be to frequency-cap these campaigns, so that folks finding themselves in the “prospect” bucket aren’t pummeled repeatedly with the same message?

No, while these simple tactics would improve customer experiences, they work against scale, and that’s affecting display’s ability to address consumers in a compelling way.  We need to pay attention to the nuances.

Tom Hespos is a contributor at The Makegood and Founder and Chief Media Officer at Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs. Look for Tom’s column the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month.