What This iCrossing Leader Learned About Programmatic by Owning a Bar

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Alehouse City Island.
Alehouse City Island. Credit: Amanda Betsold
Amanda Betsold.
Amanda Betsold. Credit: Amanda Betsold

Turns out, you can learn a thing or two about programmatic advertising from slinging beers in the Bronx.

At least, that was the case for Amanda Betsold, head of programmatic at digital marketing shop iCrossing. Betsold owned a craft beer bar on City Island in the Bronx for over four years until she sold it in 2016. And along the way, she picked up some lessons that were suprisingly applicable to media. Here's what she learned.

If you're a beer bar, don't try to be a wine bar.
When you run a bar (or any business, for that matter), it can be tempting to try to be everything for everybody. But Betsold learned that's not a wise move.

"If you're going to be a sports bar, have a bunch of TV's — make it easy to watch sports," she said. "If you're going to be a wine bar, you probably don't want TV's — you probably want candles, you want more of the dimmer light, more romantic vibe type of thing … and have a really good wine selection."

Keeping a tight focus on where you succeed is the better way to go, she said.

"As a customer, you get a little confused when you get those mixed messages," she said. "Having a strong brand really makes the experience."

Same goes for programmatic, she said.

"I think about how ... upper-funnel tactics like TV or radio, video or even advertorials and native don't always match or have consistent messaging and branding as some of those lower-funnel tactics like display or retargeting," she said.

In other cases, marketers might have a particularly clever social media presence, but a voice that doesn't translate to their ads or through the rest of the brand.

"It's important to make sure you define what your brand identity is and what the tone of your ads or your customer experience are, and keep that throughout, no matter if you're trying to show them a how-to video or try to get them to become a repeat purchaser," she said.

Personalize the experience.
Just as it's important to remember your favorite regular's order, customers like to feel like a brand has some familiarity with them.

"If you know somebody's really into IPAs, it was always great to be able to offer them new ones or especially rare or hard-to-find ones," she said.

Brands can apply this same concept to customers. Betsold used the example of retailers who will have a shopping cart item follow a customer as they surf the web. Some retailers, she said, do this especially well -- and may even offer discounts or a different item that might get the customer to go through with a purchase.

"That ad is following to remind me [I left something in my] cart ... but here's another color that maybe I like better, maybe that will speak to me," she said. "The beauty of that is then the sequential messaging you can do. Maybe it serves me five times and I haven't done anything about it, but now you can serve me an offer ... you can give me 15% off and free shipping and that's the tipping point I needed to go back and actually make that purchase."

Stick to the basics until you've mastered them.
Whether it's a menu of entrees or a list of services you offer, stick to what you do best before branching out, Betsold said.

When the Alehouse opened, the menu had too many entrees and too many beers on tap -- at one point, over 120 of them -- for the bartenders to know them intimately (or even find them in the storage area). It didn't go well.

"If you ask anyone to make 15 to 30 main courses and do them all well, there's no way there's going to be consistency in taste, plating, look and feel," she said. "You have to really simplify and focus on your top items and do them well."

She slimmed back the menu to primarily wings, burgers and hot dogs, then when those were mastered they added variations.

Betsold took the same approach when she started building out iCrossing's self-service offering in January.

"Like most programmatic teams, we started with desktop mobile and video," she said. "Those are the core offerings and we wanted to make sure we did them we did them well."

Now as her team is growing and clients are asking for new services like linear TV, digital out-of-home and terrestrial radio.

Stick to the fundamentals and "make sure you are staffing, training, putting systems in place to really roll out correctly" when you expand, she said.

Test and learn.
Constantly trying new things -- and optimizing along the way -- was one big lesson, Betsold said.

She said when the bar first opened, she wanted to offer a list of custom cocktails on the marina theme (think a City Island Iced Tea).

"Great in theory," she said. Not so great in reality.

At a launch party, she watched her bartenders flounder to keep up with cocktails, when they were entirely more familiar with the beers. That weekend, they did away with the cocktail list.

"I had to stick with what worked, because these bartenders who were so knowledgable about beer and craft beer and focused on that, it was too much on top of them remembering 106 different beers to remember eight to 12 specialty cocktails."

That testing and learning philosophy is a given in programmatic advertising.

"You watch, you see how performance is and you reallocate that based on performance, or you add in a new tactic based on performance," she said.

The key is having clients trust the company to move quickly and not require approval for every tiny detail or every reallocation, she said.

"If you're not learning and making that change quickly, then you're missing out on opportunities," she said.

It's OK to cut a customer off.
Every bartender knows the pain of having to cut off an over-served customer.

Sometimes marketers have to be cut off, too.

"I never want to turn down money, however, I never want to do something that's not in a client's best interest," Betsold said. "It's a struggle we definitely have, especially in digital and programmatic. There's the impression that there is infinite opportunity online."

She said clients often have a "use-it-or-lose-it" budget come year-end, and that the team has to work harder to make sure client campaigns perform because of increased ad rates and fraudulent traffic driven by the increased demand at the end of a quarter and year. She said she often tells clients their money might be better spent elsewhere or during a different time.

"You're dumping all this extra money that may not perform and may not be shown against a human viewable audience," she said. "I've had to explain this to clients before and say, 'I'm happy to take your money, my company would be thrilled to take your money -- however, in your best interest I need to disclose here are my concerns and the optimal spend will likely be this…' "

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