Programmatic Display + Intent: Find Overlooked ABM Targets

By Craig Weiss, COO, True Influence

Programmatic display advertising has established itself as a critical tool for marketing and sales organizations as they adopt and refine account-based marketing (ABM) strategies. Display ad targeting and retargeting technology has matured dramatically, allowing marketers to reach prospects with timely, relevant content in their purchase journey at a reasonable price point.

A lot of the industry buzz about programmatic display and ABM centers on how ads can lift the performance of other marketing channels as you convert and nurture prospects. And that’s all good news. But a powerful benefit of programmatic display that often gets overlooked is its enormous potential in discovering and initially engaging eligible accounts that might otherwise slip through your ABM net.

In this post, I discuss how smartly targeted display ads, coupled with purchase intent intelligence, can help you find and start a conversation with accounts that aren’t on Sales and Marketing ABM wish lists.

The business is out there, and display is an effective, affordable channel for opening those doors.

B2B display advertising is big and just getting bigger

First off, let me say the B2B digital advertising space is booming. eMarketer estimates that U.S. B2B sellers will spend more than $8 billion this year on digital advertising, up 23 percent from just last year.

eMarketer attributes the dramatic spending jump largely to shifts in marketing budgets in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – no one is sponsoring trade show booths these days. But for years now, experts have predicted healthy year-over-year growth in B2B programmatic display, and about half of B2B sellers now have ad retargeting and personalization systems in place.

Couple that with news that more than half of B2B marketing leaders say they are confident that ABM is the right strategy for them, and it’s clear you need to find the right fit for programmatic display in your own ABM future. And a huge piece of that needs to be account discovery and initial engagement.

Casting a wider net for ABM

I’ve always been a big believer in casting a fairly wide net when it comes to discovering in-market buyers.

Some data-driven marketers tend to get a little myopic and hyper-target every email drop or banner run. Candidly, we like to think we’re smarter than the market. But the variables of the buying cycle are enormous – why and how people buy from you are different every time.

This creates something of a Catch 22 for ABM, which dictates that you focus resources on sophisticated campaigns designed to move both individual buying group members and the account as a whole toward the buy decision. You can’t afford to build campaigns for bad-fit accounts, but you also can’t afford to only focus on aspirational customers.

Use Programmatic to Size Up Audiences

Programmatic display is a great channel for sizing audiences because, frankly, you can use it to reach people you don’t know relatively cheaply. Rates vary by industry, of course, but 1,000 display impressions still cost about $10 or less.

Of course, your display programs must be coupled with a valuable offer. This is always true in B2B, and it’s certainly the case with ABM. But at the high funnel, with a nice, easily digestible asset and intent data as a segmentation filter, you can touch a broad segment of prospects who are showing genuine interest.

Caveat: Sales and marketing must be aligned for ABM to work

Before I go any further about casting a wide net, let me get this warning out on the table:

Any account or individual that you target outside the boundaries of the sales-accepted customer profile is wasted spend. Your ROI is already zero.

Sales might be wrong, but it doesn’t matter. If Sales doesn’t call the lead, it won’t convert. And when your CRO runs the numbers, all they are going to see is that the lead was a dead end.

In ABM, sales and marketing alignment is everything.

So, as you define your “wider net,” be sure everyone agrees on the baseline qualifications to be added to your ABM mix. Just don’t be overly rigid in building those profiles.

Intent is key to alignment

With that said, let me stress that intent data should absolutely be a guide in programmatic display for ABM account discovery.

Even though display is relatively affordable, no marketer is looking to reach vast numbers of uninterested people. With intent in the mix, you can pinpoint your display spend to accounts who are actively researching a purchase. That’s a huge indicator for success, and should be weighted fairly heavily in your targeting “algos”. Even if an account is a little low on annual revenue to be a perfect firmographic fit, it’s still likely worth a few thousand impressions to see if decision makers there want to get to know you better.

This is likely more true during the current economic uncertainty. We’re heading into an economy of big winners and big losers, and what we once thought was predictable is now a lot more mysterious. So finding that customer you weren’t specifically looking for is more important than ever.

Start with tight targeting of your ideal accounts and prospects. Once you’ve done that, then broaden out to find more unknowns at the top of the funnel, with intent as your guide.

Of course, we build intent into all our solutions here at True Influence – we helped define the category, after all. It’s a key feature of our DisplayBase® programmatic display platform, and it definitely needs to be considered in your strategy.

Intent v. look-alike

Intent’s main rival in display targeting for ABM is look-alike modeling, which you’ve probably read about in the trade press. (Here’s an interesting write-up at eMarketer.)

I’ve never been a big fan of lookalike. To me, it’s like trying to find the pink elephant in Iowa. You’re basically saying, “Wow, last year I sold an account that looked just like this, so my ideal account must be just like this.” But there’s probably just one of those pink elephants.

No two customers ever behave in the same manner. Your next customer probably doesn’t look exactly like the last one. In fact, if all your customers look exactly alike, you’re probably limiting your business. Just because a healthcare company bought your service, does that really mean that only healthcare companies are likely to be customers?

Focus on identifying what attributes make a company the right fit for your business, and make those the core of your ABM and named account strategy. Then, use intent and a slightly less restrictive application of those standards to find unknown companies who may not be a perfect match for your wish list, but nonetheless have a genuine interest in your product or service.

High funnel is great for discovery, but have a mix

As you may have gathered, most marketers use programmatic display ads to promote high-funnel offers for account discovery. And that is a solid strategy. But in ABM, as with any other data-driven B2B marketing approach, you need a mix of offers to attract prospects at whatever their stage in the purchase journey.

You have to find your customers where they are.

Of course, the lower in the funnel you go, your response rates will be lower, and you’ll get less touch for your dollar. That’s just the basic math. But those responses may be incredibly lucrative.

It all really depends on your offer. If you do go low funnel, be sure to roll out with offers that are both valuable and timely. As a B2B seller, you should have a pretty good idea of seasonality and current market conditions for your solution. Only go low funnel when people are buying what you are selling.

Raise awareness as you engage

As for a general creative approach, many marketers chose brand awareness for their high-funnel display programs. Brand is always going to drive response to any offer you have in play, and that’s certainly true at the initial engagement step. People gravitate to what they know. And, again, it’s an affordable tactic – most marketers suggest that it takes just 5 to 7 impressions to make a brand impression.

But it’s also true that prospects who engage with your content without recognizing your brand may well be more likely to buy from you. They are in need-to-know mode, and that indicates meaningful purchase research.

The highest response rates for initial awareness campaigns are based on quick-to-digest content: less than 30 seconds of video, and ideally one infographic. If a prospect is giving you any mindshare, you have about 10 seconds to really grab their attention. They are likely just going to look at the cover of your ebook and determine if they want to continue or not.

Focus on business benefits and the big picture change you can bring to an organization. Don’t get down in the technical weeds – if prospects want that kind of information, they’ll ask for it.

Programmatic display vs. other targeted ad formats

In addition to standard display, native advertising has earned some buzz in the ABM press. Candidly, it’s really not our space here at True Influence, and when you are trying to cast a wider net to identify and attract unknown prospects, native has real limitations.

Native works only when it can run under a co-brand with a trusted partner. Otherwise, the user experience is just off. Native has to feel like editorial, even if it’s clearly labeled as advertising. So even though it can be targeted and retargeted with the same technology as display, native really works more like content syndication. And properly targeted content syndication demand gen (we do that here, too) is going to give you much better reach than a native takeover of a few publishing network sites.

Persona-targeted search engine marketing (SEM) can also be useful as part of your ABM account discovery, but I view it more as a way to inform other programs, including programmatic display. It helps to know who is searching for your services. These prospects may elect to convert on your SEM offer, but depending on your market, there’s just a lot of competition in this space. Re-targeting these users with display to lift your brand awareness will give a more clear picture of whether they belong on your ABM list.

As always, have a solid mix of all channels, and shift resources to what’s working. But keep all your channels in play – what’s working today may not work tomorrow. Be ready to listen to the market and ramp up or down as results demand.

Display ads are a great first step for ABM

The first step of a successful account-based marketing strategy is to identify which accounts to target. Data should drive this process, but don’t fall into the trap of being too rigid in exploring the market for prospect accounts. Programmatic display advertising, targeted with purchase intent intelligence, is an effective, affordable tool for finding customers you didn’t even know you were looking for.

If programmatic advertising is new to your radar, you might want this list of 17 programmatic marketing terms you should know

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