Programmatic: Buying or Media?

Young hipster man making a good-bad signI’ve been asked a couple of times if I’m pro- or anti-programmatic. My answer, sometimes to the asker’s frustration, is “it depends.”

Whether or not a medium works for you depends on many things. The first, and most fundamental question to ask before purchasing any media is “does the target audience use that medium?” That’s forgotten a lot these days, particularly in the world of cheap digital media. Just because a medium has a lot of reach, doesn’t mean you want to buy it, regardless of the price.

Here’s how I think of “programmatic.”

Always split the method of buying from the media. For example, we can use programmatic buying techniques to purchase inventory on premium media, say the New York Times. We can use non-programmatic methods (say direct I/O) to purchase on the same premium media.

There’s also programmatic media, which is media that has been built to take advantage of the programmatic ecosystem. That’s your usual mess of fake news sites and viral nonsense like ViralNova. Humans mostly don’t go to programmatic media, except by accident.

Programmatic buying works when it helps you get inventory that reaches your target audience(s) at a better price. It is not, and will never be, a replacement for the holy trinity of marketing: STP–Segment, Target, Position. You should never rely on your programmatic vendors for segmentation and targeting decisions. You must make those up-front and then use the programmatic tools to help make purchase decisions.

You have to watch programmatic buying like a hawk. Here’s some good questions to ask your agency and your marketing managers this morning. They’ll all hate you, by the way.

  • How many impressions did we purchase last week from first- vs. second-price auctions?
  • Did we purchase on the same publishers via both first- and second-price auctions last week?
  • If so, exactly how and what was the price difference?
  • Bonus question: Why did you make the decision to purchase in both first- vs. second-price auctions for the same inventory?

Good luck with the answers. They better know them off the top of their head. After all, it’s only your money.

Programmatic media, on the other hand, is sewage. Humans don’t spend time and effort at ViralNova or any of the other sites built only to get view-through attribution from your MTA tool, to attract more money. Resist the urge to buy that garbage. Test it by removing it from your media plan for a few days, or weeks. See if your actual sales (not those predicted by your MTA tool) go down.

How do you know if the medium is programmatic or just something you maybe haven’t heard of? It’s simple: just type in the URL and go there. Not your intern, not your agency. You. Yeah, it’s a pain the first couple of weeks. But imagine your CEO going to a couple of those sites and asking you why you’re spending his bonus the company’s money there? Not a pleasant day.

Takeaway: Separate “programmatic” into the programmatic buying techniques and programmatic media. Interrogate both separately, with the goal to reduce the latter to zero. Ask hard questions about the techniques. And win.

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