programmatic advertising growth
In roughly a year, 82% of all digital media will be bought programmatically.

Programmatic advertising is changing the digital marketing landscape — and quickly. In roughly a year, 82 percent of all digital media will be bought programmatically.This is good news for small business owners. Done right, it can give everyone a fair shake at success in digital marketing. Gone are the days when business challengers had to fight over the ad inventory left behind after the big guys bought all the premium space on brand-name sites. The playing field has leveled.

In the past, SMBs would target audiences via digital channels through a limited set of choices. Gathering people’s email addresses and sending them regular marketing messages is an age-old tactic that’s still alive today. Paid search was — and is — popular for reaching people who show intent through their keywords.

But for those who wanted a more visual way of attracting customers, buying standard-size banner ads was a bit of a hurdle. They could make agreements with publishers or ad networks to buy ad impressions for their campaigns, but that’s a tedious back-and-forth process that requires calls, emails, negotiations and many other steps.

In that vein, business owners would do well to embrace programmatic advertising or risk being left behind by their more advertising-savvy competitors.

The great equalizer

In the past, ad targeting was completely linear. A business that makes and sells boats, for example, would research its audience, pre-plan its campaign, determine what sites its audience might browse, and buy impressions directly from that publisher. Today, we’ve thrown technology into this mix. Now, challenger companies have the capabilities and reach previously accessible to only those with enormous budgets.

auction-based programmatic buying
Auction-based programmatic buying

Through auction-based programmatic buying that’s executed via on-demand software, small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) can compete with national brands for ad impressions. Rather than having to secure relationships with publishers to buy impressions, SMBs can access that inventory automatically via demand-side platforms.

With programmatic, inventory pricing is fluid — not fixed — and the buyer holds much of the power. For example, if you know your customer type is reading a brand-name business magazine, you can likely find the same or similar audiences on various sites across the web. Today, you can directly target different audiences based on location, demographics and other sets of criteria. You price your bid based on what you’re willing to pay. If you win impressions, great! If not, you likely need to adjust your bid level.

With the right plan, SMBs can target specific audiences and gain significant traction in the market. The potential ROI boost is major: Programmatic gets your brand in front of the right eyeballs, regardless of what type of content they’re viewing. To begin your programmatic journey, start with these three steps:

1. Clear the perceived hurdles. Most growing SMBs are already utilizing a mix of desktop display, mobile, social and maybe even more forms of advertising. Adding another tactic or process to the mix can seem out of reach to a resource-starved SMB. In truth, it’s never been easier to utilize programmatic digital media buying. The tools to automate the process are more readily available than ever. Best practices and resources are accessible and oftentimes free.

Although demand-side platforms (DSPs) are available as self-service platforms, many provide human service for checks and balances to ensure you’re learning a new way of marketing. You can evaluate DSPs for their capability to support your staff, understand your business goals and stay flexible in testing alternative approaches. Additionally, take the time to understand ad serving — the foundation of ad tech. There are always opportunities for you to get more information, training and education.

2. Set a goal-oriented plan, and put it in motion. Although you cannot guarantee you’ll receive a certain amount of impressions with programmatic, you should still set thresholds. Your business or marketing goals ultimately determine your advertising options. Whether you’re handling advertising in-house or working with a partner, the first task is to understand your marketing objectives and optimize your plan to meet them.

shoping in store
Location-based mobile ads arre a great first step.

For example, 85 percent of consumers still prefer shopping in-store, so foot traffic is a key goal for brick-and-mortar SMBs. In this case, location-based mobile ads are a great first step. Mobile devices offer unprecedented data about what users are interested in. Many consumers are happy to opt-in to location-based advertising and other mobile services.

This allows you to reach interested people, no matter where they are. You can target customers who recently visited a competitor or complementary business. You can catch people as they’re price shopping and researching their options. Instead of casting a huge net hoping to find a few fish with a local TV or radio spot, you essentially have sonar to track the fish most interested in your bait.

3. Track, test and adjust. Leveraging data to make sound business decisions is not a new idea. In fact, more than half of small businesses believe analytics are crucial to tracking growth. One of the biggest benefits of programmatic is that valuable data on the performance of your campaigns is at your fingertips. You can track the campaigns and use that information to optimize them in real time.

The first step is gathering enough data to make statistically significant decisions. Let’s say you’re running multiple ways of reaching your audience segment. It will be crucial to accrue enough performance data on each so you can make an educated decision about where to funnel your ad budget to generate good ROI.

You can refine your campaigns even further, determining what sites work the best, what time of day your audience is most engaged or even what creative converts customers. Optimizations run the gamut from minor tweaks to larger adjustments, but they’re all rooted in data.

Programmatic isn’t as established as TV, radio or magazine ads — yet. But instead of falling further behind, you should learn how to make your budget reach customers the way top marketers do. Big businesses may have more resources, but the beauty of programmatic advertising is that you’ll use many of the same tools and practices as the big guys, and the learning curve can be managed quickly.

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