Search and Display: A Lesson In What Works

frostprioleau“Data Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Frost Prioleau, CEO of

Search advertising is widely considered to be the gold standard of online advertising. One measure of success is that search has achieved recurring line-item status in the advertising budgets of almost all major advertisers. Another measure is that despite consuming only 4% of consumers’ time online, search accounts for 46% of internet ad revenues, according to the IAB Internet Advertising Report. Display, on the other hand, generates only 33% of Internet ad revenues, despite consuming almost all of the remaining 96% of time that users spend online.

While highly successful, search does have some significant limitations. Limited frequency is one issue, in that advertisers only have the opportunity to communicate with prospects at the time of their search. Another issue is search’s limited effectiveness as a branding tool, as search ads consist of several lines of text, mostly without graphics or animation.

This is where display advertising enters with its broad reach, high frequency and wide-ranging graphical capabilities. Exchange-traded display, real-time bidding , demand-side platforms and the like have the potential to combine the effectiveness of search with the reach and brand impact of display. But display still has a long way to catch up with search in terms of advertiser spend.

So what lessons can display advertisers learn from search to become effective and attract more budget? Here’s a look at a few of the most important lessons.

Benefits Of Unstructured Data

In search, marketers can target against unstructured data. Instead of using fixed, prepackaged audience segments, search marketers can easily create custom audiences, continuously monitor the volume and effectiveness of each audience element, and – via keywords – optimize on the fly at the element level. The ability to bid, report and optimize at the keyword level has been a huge component of search’s success, and most search marketers wouldn’t dream of operating without this capability.

While unstructured data targeting is available in display, many advertisers are still targeting against prepackaged, opaque audience segments. By working with prepackaged audience segments, advertisers combine good data with bad and new data with old, without any visibility into how each individual data element performs in combination with different creatives and campaigns (Note: similar-looking data can perform very differently).

Advertisers can make their display campaign perform more like search by moving from prepackaged audience targeting to unstructured data targeting. This is available not only in search retargeting but also in site retargeting, CRM data targeting and other methods. By leveraging unstructured data, advertisers can direct their budgets to the best performing data elements and eliminate spend on underperforming elements. They will also gain deeper insights into their audiences that will help craft future marketing efforts.

Importance Of Timing

Another reason that search has been highly successful is timing. Search ads are delivered immediately after prospects display their intent by entering a search query. While this is almost always a good time to show an ad, it is not the only time when showing an ad is effective.

The effective timing window for showing ads varies with the product being advertised. For example, someone searching for “emergency plumber” is likely to make a quick decision about a provider and then be out of the market. It would likely be ineffective to serve ads to this user even 24 hours after their search. On the other hand, someone searching for a longer consideration item, such as “cheap home mortgage,” will likely take a longer time to decide on a provider, and it may make sense to serve them an ad a day, a week, or even a month after the search.

While display brings the ability to communicate with a prospect well after a search event, varying the recency window of when display ads are delivered is critical for success. Data has proven, time and again, that recency is almost always one of the top factors impacting campaign performance.

Data Quality Matters

A third major factor in the success of search marketing is the quality of the data. The quality of data used in search marketing is uniformly high; as it’s the result of a proactive action by the user, it’s directly tied to the user who will see the ad, and it’s immediate.

The data used in display varies widely in effectiveness, cost and reach. Search retargeting uses the same intent data that is used in search, with varying recency windows. Site retargeting, for example, uses very direct data about the sites and/or product pages visited. Contextual data targets users based on the current page that they are viewing. CRM data targets users based on online or offline customer interactions. Meanwhile, demographic and social targeting bring the advantage of large-scale but are not directly tied to the actions of a browser.

So what can a display marketer learn from search regarding data quality? Depending on the goals of the campaign, all of the above data types can be highly effective. The key is transparency into the data elements, so that the advertiser can understand exactly which parts of the data are working and which are not.

Display has come a long way in the last few years and continues to close both the spending gap and the effectiveness gap with search. Moving towards unstructured data, variable recency and data transparency are just three ways with which marketers can move their display performance to the level of search. Even better, time spent on these efforts will also help them succeed in the quickly accelerating fields of mobile and video.

Follow Frost Prioleau (@phrossed) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.


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