Making sense of Amazon's ad platform that's evolving into a marketing marvel
That Amazon is a powerful advertising platform is undeniable at this point, but many brands are still not tapping into its full force. And that might be Amazon’s fault; it has a chaotic ecosystem of e-commerce and media that would be tough for even the most brilliant brands to navigate—but help is on the way.
Amazon advertising partners say that changes are in store within Amazon that will make it easier for brands at a time when e-commerce marketing has become a vital lifeline for businesses in the COVID-19 economy. One of the most anticipated changes just dropped when Amazon released a DSP API. (That’s a lot of acronym—it stands for Amazon's demand-side platform application programming interface—and it’s basically a new component within Amazon Advertising to help run campaigns on and off Amazon.com.)
“It’s an exciting update,” says Todd Bowman, VP of e-commerce at Reprise, an Amazon advertising partner. APIs are part of the basic infrastructure which companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and others use to foster innovation. They are open to ad partners to build software that uses machine learning, ad creation tools, reporting and analysis to enable large-scale, online marketing.
Amazon released its DSP API quietly last week in the same fashion it releases so many of its ad updates—with a simple blog post on its ads website. And the company has been making similar incremental changes this year that are giving partners new powers on Amazon’s website, the mobile app, over-the-top TV, audio, and off site. The Amazon DSP is designed to run programmatic ad campaigns—display, video and audio ads—on Amazon and publisher websites outside Amazon.
Amazon ad opportunities are expansive and the advertising partner program can be confusing, so with that in mind, here is a look at where Amazon advertising stands:
What does Amazon say?
Ad Age spoke with Colleen Aubrey, Amazon’s VP of performance advertising, to get the latest on Amazon’s ad technology and how the online retail giant views its responsibility to build ad services.
“Let’s take all of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop for display advertising over the last decade and let’s find a way to make that available to a company of any size,” Aubrey says. “That, of course, requires the product to be available in self-service; the product to be able to scale through APIs; the product to be something that agencies can understand; can represent well to their customers; and to be something they’re able to incorporate into their marketing plans.”
Aside from new APIs, Amazon also runs an advertising partner program, and that is changing, too. The website that promotes the partners is becoming easier to navigate, and partners say Amazon will become stricter about making sure the agencies are expert in all the categories they claim, categories that include running DSP campaigns, measurement services, all the different search ad products, and all the regions they support.
“[Amazon] will launch in the next few months a much more robust index, so partners will have to prove that they have capabilities, so they’re not just ticking boxes,” says the leader of one Amazon advertising partner company, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Advertising partners specialize in managed services, including firms like CommerceIQ, Reprise Digital, Flywheel, Orca Pacific, Resolution Media, Seller Labs and dozens more. And there are technological tool providers like 4C Insights, Kenshoo, Pacvue and Teikametrics.
“Amazon realizes it can’t build all the use cases and tools required,” says Franz Jordan, CEO of Sellics, an Amazon partner. “It is opening APIs so other service providers can jump in, and it is something Amazon is investing a lot in.”
Inside the e-commerce marketing revolution
“Because of COVID-19, there is a massive acceleration of e-commerce,” says Guru Hariharan, CEO of CommerceIQ. Hariharan’s company works with the top of the top brands—Kimberly-Clark, Mars, Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson—on their Amazon strategies, and he says the business took off this year. “I have three customers that are pushing more than $1 billion on Amazon.”
On Thursday, eMarketer put out its first e-commerce channel ad-spending forecast in the U.S., and expects e-commerce advertising to grow 40 percent this year compared to 2019. Amazon ad revenue also happens to be growing at about 40 percent year over year so far in 2020, and it will command about 76 percent of all e-commerce ad revenue this year, according to eMarketer, generating $13.2 billion in the U.S. alone.
The reason for the surge is clear, shopping behavior is changing dramatically during the pandemic, with more consumers making purchases online. The surge is a difficult one for major consumer products, grocery and apparel companies to manage. “It’s started to expose a lot of these cracks,” Hariharan says.
Brands are trying to keep up on Amazon, and increasingly that means they need automation. There are many quirks to managing their presence: supply chain issues, pricing, product descriptions and reviews. There are sponsored ads—Sponsored Products, Sponsored Brands and Sponsored Display—and there are Brand Stores and Brand Posts. There are Amazon Live videos on Amazon.com and video ads on Amazon OTT, which includes Fire TV and IMDb TV, and there are audio ads.
Last month, Amazon opened Twitch, the streaming video site it owns, to advertisers buying through the DSP, too.
Amazon sales and marketing can get real complicated, real fast.
“You have a good number of companies that recognize that if you don’t have a strong foundation, if your retail basics are not strong, then any amount of advertising is not going to be impactful or efficient,” Amazon’s Aubrey says. “And, you know, the retail foundation is things like do you have good availability, is your pricing good, are your products well-positioned and well-rated, are your detail pages complete and enable a customer to make a buying decision? These components are part of the success of a marketing campaign.”
How to make sense of Amazon advertising?
“Agencies and tool providers have recognized that there’s expertise to be built for marketing in an e-commerce environment,” Aubrey says. “If you look back a few years, no one was talking about e-commerce marketing. I think that is a new sort of area of expertise that has emerged and that is working well for brands.”
The Amazon DSP API is just one new automation lever. The DSP covers outside publishers, so it ties ad campaigns on Amazon.com to the rest of the web—what marketers call “closing the funnel.” It’s a strategy being adopted by many retailers that have ambitions in media services, including Walmart and Target.
For now, the DSP API is more about reporting, according to Bowman, the e-commerce VP at Reprise.
“The goal is to have it where the API can provide account management capabilities as well,” Bowman says.
Amazon has another side to its ads API, which has been available for years, for managing the search component of advertising. The search side includes formats like Sponsored Products and Sponsored Brands ads, the kind that show up on Amazon.com when a user shops there.
Brands have more tools than ever before to manage how they show up in Amazon shopping settings. Sponsored Brands can show up in searches, and they can also lead to Brand Stores, which are hubs for all the products on offer. Brand Stores are adorned with videos and lifestyle images, not just product display photos that look ripped out of a PennySaver.
Amazon also is leaning into live video shopping and what it calls “Posts,” which put a social media spin on shopping. Customers can follow brands and get product updates through Posts.
Posts are currently in beta testing, and are an example of the types of experiments Amazon runs in the advertising program. Advertising partners often get first dibs on helping build out these new tools, infusing them with automation, reporting and measurement.
What’s becoming clear is that Amazon is developing a full slate of advertising formats and services. It’s a strategy that takes into account retail and media, for making quick sales and building longer-term relationships.
Aubrey says Amazon wants brands to have “more daily, casual conversations.”
“With Posts and Amazon Live and Brand Stores, these are content marketing tools that we’re building.” Aubrey says. “They’re free to use, but it gives brands the opportunity to build more of a story and more of the content infrastructure around the way that they engage with customers.”