A Delicate Balance: Direct and Programmatic Sales for Publishers

This article was written by Vin Turk & published by Business2Community

Publishers face a dilemma in today’s advertising environment. Many have premium inventory that is sold directly by their experienced, professional sales team. However, at the same time, they have less valuable inventory that they may want to sell programmatically – but with two important concerns: The first is that programmatic may be viewed as “competition” by their sales team; the second is the fear that programmatic may devalue their inventory overall.

These are valid concerns, for sure – but they don’t actually need to be concerns at all. There is a place for both programmatic and direct sales in the age of data, and one doesn’t necessarily have to cannibalize the other; in fact, they can work together harmoniously. Different publications take different approaches to achieving balance, with some leaving premium sales to BDMs and selling only remnant media via programmatic; others make all their inventory available on exchanges. Programmatic pioneer Conde Nastaddressed the problem by including both their sales team and their advertisers in conversations early on. Alanna Gombert of Conde Nast noted, “Everyone is figuring out what works for them, and is open to adapting a process that may support sales. At the end of the day, if the sales team is an integral part of the process, the fear goes away, as the notion of programmatic as a non-human interaction is totally false.”

This approach is critical, in part due to the fact that most media is purchased differently now. For the majority of digital advertisers, they’re not buying a placement – they’re buying an audience. And whether they’re buying directly from an exchange or working with a sales rep, they still want to reach the same prospective buyers. That means that sales reps need to understand the value of data-driven programmatic advertising, how it works, and how they can add value to the process.

In both the case of the direct sale and the person-to-person sale, publishers would be wise to package their inventory in the most attractive way possible to command a premium price. Here are a few tips to making that happen:

  • Offer access to third-party data on site visitors to advertisers. It may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many publishers still don’t do this in a meaningful, actionable way – even today, when programmatic is truly hitting its stride. Offering demographic, geographic and other data to advertisers so that they’re making the best choices to achieve their goals. Providing intent data delivers even more value, allowing advertisers to reach in-market buyers. And if advertisers are able to achieve their goals via your site (or network of sites) they’ll continue to purchase media from you. Furthermore, there may be surprises in the data that media buyers hadn’t anticipated – hidden, niche audiences for example, which may lead to greater sales.
  • Categorize areas of your site(s) based on behavior and activities. Visitors will take different actions while engaging with different content types on your site, and those behaviors will be of interest to potential advertisers. A “tutorials” or “university” area might drive long, deep engagement that will really interest some advertisers. A directory, in which users are actively driven by intent, will interest others, while front-page news items might really appeal to brand advertisers. Clueing potential advertisers into these content types will help them develop the right ad formats, creatives and calls-to-action, which they’ll find incredibly useful.
  • Continue to rely on your in-house sales team for high-value deals and high-touch clients. There will be advertisers who prefer to purchase ads programmatically exclusively, and that’s fine. But there will also always be advertisers who prefer to purchase media from another person, with discussions in a face-to-face environment. These may be advertisers who are looking for something different, something special, something exclusive – like a homepage takeover, for example. Make sure you give them the premium customer experience they deserve. Educate BDMs on all advertising products, on all available audience segments, and on the benefits of each section of your website. Empowered, knowledgeable sales reps can put together custom deals for higher value customers that drive desired results for both buyer and seller.

There really is room for both low (or no) and high-touch sales in the programmatic world. Publishers and sales teams have no reason to feel ambivalent about the world of automated advertising – if anything, both parties should make an effort to embrace it, along with the unprecedented targeting opportunities it affords advertisers. In the end, it means more inventory sold, allowing more advertisers to effectively reach their target audience, and (on top of that) visitors who can enjoy a more personalized site experience – all potentially with less work. Isn’t that a win-win for everyone?