Will 2018 be the year of B2B programmatic?

The B2B marketing universe is ready for programmatic display to move to the next level. Will 2018 be the year that it finally happens? Stein IAS' Jason Abbate explores

For those of us who work in B2B advertising (for me at least), it’s hard not to wonder whether 2018 will be the year that B2B programmatic finally starts to achieve its true potential.

While programmatic sweeps through the digital advertising world – a recent study predicts that by 2019, 67% of global digital display media will be bought and sold programmatically – progress in the B2B universe has been slower, especially for advertisers with smaller budgets and niche audience targets.

Rather than make a sweeping prediction that 2018 will be the year B2B programmatic (after all, ad tech is a notoriously unpredictable space), let’s look at where things are progressing well and where we are still seeing some real challenges.

The good news

Adoption is growing

Adoption of programmatic in B2B is growing on both the advertiser and publisher side. Advertisers are increasingly seeing the value and publishers are responding. From audience extension to private deals, more and more publishers are making inventory and data accessible through the programmatic ecosystem.

Recently, at the Business Information & Media Summit in Florida, data and programmatic implementation were core topics and the audiences were highly engaged. This is no longer an early-adopter conversation for B2B publishers. As an agency, we expect publishers to offer audience targeting and they increasingly do. Most clients are eager to talk about data-first approaches that can power their digital spend. Discussions about CRM onboarding, IP targeting and geo-targeting are much more likely to lead to approvals.

Innovation is real

We're seeing real technology and ecosystem innovations that are changing the programmatic landscape in B2B.

The integration of data management platforms with CRM and MA systems has taken major leaps forward over the past year.

Oracle has fully integrated BlueKai and Salesforce has fully integrated Krux. These category leading DMPs now offer the opportunity for B2B marketers to run programmatic display as part of integrated multichannel programs that deliver relevant messaging and content across the buyer journey.

A great example of a potentially important development is the launch of the BPA’s B2B Exchange, which is a private programmatic marketplace for B2B media. Many in the industry have been crying out for exchanges designed to meet the needs of B2B publishers and advertisers.

This year, LinkedIn finally added custom audience targeting, which is a big win for B2B advertisers. Also, LinkedIn now sells its display inventory entirely through programmatic channels. Combined with their launch of native conversion tracking (at last!), these developments are powering new levels of targeting and performance for advertisers using B2B’s most important horizontal platform.

The not so good news

Getting publishers on board

Smaller publishers are still lagging. When we’re buying directly, we still find that many smaller publishers are unable to target ads audience segments or aren’t set up for programmatic buys (there are still some who don’t accept ad server tags). Direct buying will always play a role in B2B advertising, but advertisers and agencies increasingly expect to be able to take advantage of first and third-party targeting when accessing publisher inventory.

Context matters, especially in B2B. Advertisers and agencies value business content and we need publishers to participate, to make their inventory available and targetable in order to maximize the potential of digital campaigns.

Data – data - data

We’re still having trouble reaching niche audiences. If you’re targeting IT decision-makers, it’s easy to find segments across the open exchange and through private deals. But if you need to (accurately) reach more specific segments – data scientists, engineers, food scientists… good luck.

The irony is there's more information out there about B2B audiences than B2C audiences. B2B publishers know a great deal about their readers, through both explicit and implicit signals. If we're going to make targeting work, publishers are going to have to make that data available – not just on a first-party basis (which some, though still not enough, do) but for use across the broader programmatic ecosystem. The data is out there, but it sits behind too many proprietary fences.

The focus is still on scale

The emphasis on programmatic is still too centered around scale. In B2B, the need to reach and surround the right set of decision-makers generally outweighs the need for scale. If, for example, your entire universe of decision-makers and influencers number in the 10,000 to 15,000 range, finding them, especially when they're showing intent, is the first order of business.

In the B2B world, we’re willing to pay for these audiences when we find them – and not the small CPMs typically seen in B2C buys. If you’re charging an $8 CPM to reach business decision-makers, then guess what, you’re not reaching enterprise business decision-makers.

Of course, to make all of this work, the level of transparency and fraud protection will have to increase exponentially. It’s one thing to have 30% of your buy targeted to the wrong people (or to fake people) on poor quality sites when you’re purchasing at scale for low CPMs. It’s another thing entirely when you’re paying top dollar for highly qualified audiences. In 2017, large consumer advertisers such as P&G have increasingly called out the industry on these issues and there are some signs that change is coming. The adoption of the ads.txt initiative and the rapid growth of the TrustX exchange are encouraging developments.

It’s been exciting to watch the progression of programmatic in B2B. But for the ecosystem to work across B2B segments (not the just the broad-based ones that function more like B2C), we’ll need new mindsets to take hold around targeting and data.

For B2B programmatic to achieve its potential, a new paradigm will have to emerge that makes deep, high-quality data available across high-quality inventory in a transparent and verifiable marketplace.

It’s a tall order for the next 12 months. But the time is right for the B2B world to up its display advertising game and start delivering the next level of relevance and returns.

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