Using display ads in support of b-to-b direct marketing

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At's Dreamforce expo, held in San Francisco in September, I wanted to chat with marketing automation and direct marketing exhibitors about online display advertising. However, for an expo focused on leading-edge sales and marketing solutions, I found a surprising dearth of knowledge about display advertising and the role it can play in b-to-b direct marketing and lead-generation programs.

From what I can tell, marketing-automating companies and lead nurturers are so fixated on email as their "push" channel (as opposed to comparatively passive channels like content syndication or search ads) that they should just start calling the marketing funnel the "email funnel." I'm not questioning the value of email marketing, but with newer display-ad targeting techniques marketers now can establish one-to-one dialogues with prospects beyond the inbox.

When display advertising first emerged, ads were crudely targeted by website or general topic (e.g., Yahoo, autos, etc.). This works fine for products with broad appeal, but it doesn't work very well for niche b-to-b products with complex sales cycles. Hence, b-to-b marketers learned to be wary of banner ads, an attitude that stubbornly persists to this day.

Within the last five years or so, several advances in display-ad targeting have become widely available, allowing marketers to slice audiences into increasingly specific segments. These newer targeting techniques fall into two basic categories:

First is contextual targeting, which matches ads to page content or topic. Here, for example, if a page contains the phrase "enterprise resource planning," it might be a good place to show ads for an ERP solution.

Secondly, behavioral targeting relies on a prospect's historical trail of actions to maximize the relevance of ads. One type of behavioral targeting that every b-to-b marketer should know about is retargeting (or remarketing), that can show follow-up ads to prospects after they've left your website (site retargeting) or after they've used a search engine to look up targeted keywords (search retargeting).

Better targeting means that display ads can be custom-tailored with relevant content to match a prospect's interests and their stage in the marketing funnel. Consider these three stages:

  • Awareness. Here, display ad targeting techniques might include site/topic targeting, like running ads in the "Direct/Search Marketing" section of 'BtoB's' website. There's also keyword targeting, where ads would run on Web pages containing the phrase "direct marketing."

    Content here should be simple, compelling brand messages. Awareness tends to lead to increased Web searches, which enable the marketer to employ search retargeting and increase the relevance and precision of display ad content.

  • Education. Display ad targeting techniques for prospects' educational stage can involve search retargeting. For example, you might show ads to prospects who have searched for "direct marketing platforms." Content should be educational in nature, including such things as whitepapers, research and thought leadership.

    You'll want to use search retargeting to drive prospects to a website, thus enabling the employment of site retargeting. Subsequent ad content can be further tailored according to pages visited.

  • Consideration. Your display ad targeting technique here involves site retargeting. For example, show follow-up ads to prospects who browsed your website and then left. These are perhaps in the early stages of their purchase process.

    Display ad content here should be product-based, focusing on features and benefits. Use product tours and interactive demos. Next, you can generate sales-ready leads by driving prospects to sales or demo registration forms.

Display advertising is ready to play a key role in b-to-b marketing automation, lead generation and direct marketing. Display ad targeting can now forge a one-to-one communication channel with prospects, and display ad content can be systematically tailored to maximize its relevance and precision. It would seem that the time is right for display advertising to become a bigger part of the b-to-b direct marketing mix.

Myles Younger is co-founder and head-marketing and business development at Canned Banners (, a Web-based platform for automating display ad design. He can be reached at [email protected]

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