Publisher data, brand partnerships and AI: takeaways from The Drum’s performance marketing breakfast

Performance marketing and brand marketing are often portrayed as warring factions fighting a battle for client spend between short-term sales goals and long-term brand building objectives.

But if one thing was apparent at The Drum’s recent Performance Marketing Breakfast, it was that a confluence of technologies and the convergence of the publishing and retail sectors are thrusting performance disciplines into an ever-more prominent position within the marketing mix.

“The performance industry has to sit hand in hand with brand objectives,” said George Gray, newly installed as business development director at Performance Horizon having moved from the performance team at British Airways. “If you’ve got a TV campaign, or a national press piece, using your performance marketing channels to really activate that is only going to get the most out of it.

“If you look at brand and performance marketing in silos, and you don’t look at the two together, your brand activity is going to fall by the wayside a lot of the time depending on what your targets are. They really need to complement each other.”

Kevin Edwards, global client strategy director at AWIN, claimed that brands are increasingly adopting this mindset. He said: “One thing that’s always cited is how brands don’t integrate their affiliate channel with other channels – be it online, offline, other performance channels as well.” He suggested one of the reasons for that is because a lot of the affiliate business has typically sat with networks rather than agencies. “Probably about 80% of affiliate programmes sit with networks so an agency doesn’t necessarily get a look in. You are trying to jump up and down and say don’t forget us. Actually that’s becoming less of an issue now.”

He pointed to the approach of one client – BT – as an example. “If you ask the head of digital at BT, he’s absolutely committed to integrating affiliate. The telco sector is probably the most sophisticated when you look at affiliate marketing. One of the reasons for that is because so much of that comparison activity sits within the affiliate channel. Money talks in that respect, they know it’s a very good lever for them and they know it’s a good acquisition channel. If that’s assimilated within their general marketing mix then you can really start to unlock and understand the potential of the channel.”

One of the increasing trends in performance marketing is the emergence of brand to brand partnerships, according to Gray. “With the rise of Google and Facebook and some of the fears we have over that, I think you’re going to see more and more brands partnering together – certainly within a performance model,” he said. Partnerships might include Uber with a restaurant, for instance, or an airline joining forces with a hotel to cross-promote one another. “But it has to be the right brand, someone you share mutual audiences with,” added Gray.

Such partnerships are symbolic of the way some retailers have begun to behave like publishers – and vice versa. “There’s definitely a convergence in media,” said Rakhee Jogia, regional director for Rakuten Display Europe. “When you think about affiliate, when you think about brand, video, social… all these formats are starting to come together.”

But as Jogia acknowledged, one of the major challenges when it comes to publishers is convincing them to share their data with brands, and she was not confident we would see this happen without an extremely enticing value exchange being waved in front of them. “I don’t think we’ll ever get to a place where publishers will share their data,” Jogia said. “Just the same way I don’t believe advertisers will. I think we’re going to see advertisers and publishers wear many hats, but data is the one thing they’ll keep close to their chests.”

Jogia cited Facebook as an example of a platform (or publisher, depending on your perspective) that was truly realising the power of its audience data. “If you think about the biggest players in the market today, Facebook for example, they’re taking a lot of customer data and now overlaying that onto the ad formats, so it’s bringing a lot of efficiencies,” she said.

Sometimes the reason publishers are reluctant to share their data is because it isn’t quite as powerful as they’d have you believe, however. “A lot of them maybe fear that by sharing the data with brands brands will decide well actually you’re not delivering the type of customer we need and therefore we’ll actually reduce the commission with you,” said Awin’s Edwards.

Another theme that emerged was the belief that we’ll increasingly see publishers owning the customer experience end-to-end, in the way that comparison brands like Skyscanner have by making the sale on their own websites. “Brands are going to have less of a touchpoint with the customer,” Performance Horizon’s Gray said. “That’s going to be good for the customer experience because you’re not going to be handed off from site to site, but brands need to think about what that means for them and how they battle against losing that customer from their site versus improving conversion rates and things like that.”

The final major talking point from the session was the emergence of artificial intelligence, technology that is being felt across the marketing mix but could have a profound impact on the performance space in particular. “You have to start with the human touch and end with the human touch,” said Jogia. “The AI, automation and programmatic pieces of technology should sit in the middle and do the heavy lifting to be able to get 50 ads out in one day, figure out what works, optimise that and upweight spend against that. It’s just a constant scientific experiment.”

Gray said that AI’s most powerful deployment would be less in the output phase and more in the media planning stage. “Brands and agencies are going to be able to use AI a lot more to decide where to put their budget,” he said. “If they make certain changes to budgets or commissions or whatever that might be, what’s that going to do to impact future sales? Automation of buying through AI is where it will get really interesting.”

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