Digital 101: What is Programmatic Display Advertising?

website with banner ads

With well over 70% of all display advertising bought programmatically, more and more brands are moving their display advertising budgets to programmatic platforms. We’ll take a look at exactly what programmatic is and how it can help your business achieve tremendous growth and ROI for your advertising dollars.

If you’ve been considering programmatic or are curious as to what programmatic display is, this guide will teach you everything you need to know.

What is Programmatic Display Advertising?

Try thinking of programmatic display advertising as traditional display advertising on steroids. It’s virtually the same as display advertising, except programmatic display utilizes advanced audience technology, targeting, RTB (real-time bidding), and networks to show display ads.

How is Programmatic Different From Display?

Many advertisers are familiar with Google Ads and Google’s Display Network, so we’ll compare the two. Programmatic display advertising is similar, but, there are a few key differences.

Programmatic platforms use proprietary technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence to show ads to highly targeted, relevant audiences. The technology even goes basic audience targeting and helps your ad show first on premium websites. That’s because virtually all display advertising is an auction. If your platform bids first and fastest, your ad will show.

Programmatic platforms also have more inventory available than the Google Display Network. Programmatic platforms have access to thousands of ad networks which means your ads can show on more websites. They can put your ad on premium websites that platforms like Google Ads can’t.

Finally, the other main difference and benefit of programmatic advertising is its available data. Advertisers have access to first and third-party data they can purchase and layer onto their campaigns. For instance, in Google Ads, you might be able to target general interests or behaviors. In programmatic platforms, you can show your ads to very specific audiences. This usually means an extra cost, but it’s worth it for companies.

display ad example
Display ad example. This type of ad would work on both traditional and programmatic platforms.

How Are Programmatic Display Ads Different?

At their core, programmatic ads look the same as any banner ad. They are often the same sizes, have similar designs, and appear like traditional display ads. The primary difference we’re looking at here isn’t what website visitors see but in the technology behind the ads.

That being said, programmatic platforms often run HTML5 ads. These are banner ads designed with motion and can even include short movie-like clips. We’re not talking about gifs or YouTube videos. We’re talking about ads that are like mini websites. HTML5 lets companies expand their creativity and often have a higher CTR than static banner ads.

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How To Run a Programmatic Display Campaign

To run programmatic campaigns requires signing up for an account on one of many popular DPSs (more on those later). DSP stands for demand-side platform.

Programmatic platforms range in complexity and specialty. If this is your first attempt at programmatic advertising or if you’ve never run a display campaign before, it’s recommended you consult an agency first. They can get you up and running with the right settings and creative strategy. If you choose to, taking it in-house later won’t be a problem.

One surprising thing about programmatic display is the budget required. Programmatic platforms like bigger budgets than traditional display advertising. That’s because their algorithms need more money to scale and optimize.

While platforms have different minimums or recommended monthly spends, you can expect to spend no less than $1,000-$3,000/month. This is to make sure you see the data and targeting features programmatic platforms have. This is another reason you may want to work with an agency first. Agencies often have relationships with platforms and are routinely buying ad space and running campaigns. Therefore, they may be able to negotiate on your behalf if you budget is on the low end.

Popular Programmatic Display Platforms

While there are hundreds of platforms to choose from, we’ve listed some of the top ones below.

Google Display & Video 360 – Yes, that’s correct. Google has its own programmatic platform. This isn’t to be confused with Google Ads; it’s a much more advanced ad server that goes well beyond the Google Display Network.

AdRoll – AdRoll is one of the earlier programmatic platforms and more popular ones, too. It specializes in retargeting campaigns. It’s an easy, fast set

adroll dashboard, programmatic display
AdRoll Campaign Dashboard

up and requires a lower minimum spend than other platforms. This is a great starting point for any company looking to get into programmatic advertising

The Trade Desk – As one of the largest and most popular programmatic platforms available, The Trade Desk gives advertisers access to more data tools and networks than virtually any other platform. It’s best for large scale, mass advertising campaigns.

StackAdapt – A more recent platform, StackAdapt combines a simple, intuitive interface with serious tech. It’s another favorite of beginning to medium-sized programmatic campaigns, but it can handle anything thrown at it. Its specialty is native advertising, but it can handle video and traditional display, too.

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These are just a few of the hundreds of programmatic platforms available. We encourage you to check out more and find the right fit for your campaign.

The Benefits of Programmatic Advertising

Companies looking to scale their advertising and reach larger (but still targeted) audiences should move towards programmatic advertising. As we’ll see below, there are many advantages companies can look forward to running programmatic campaigns.

Achieve A Higher ROI

This form of advertising has the name programmatic because of the fact that it uses AI. The artificial intelligence allows it to get better so that your ads show up at just the right time and allows them to convert better. CarTrade has had a great deal of success using this form of advertising. They improved conversion rates by more than 30%. Their click-through-rate improved by 120%.

Better Audience Targeting

As we said earlier, programmatic advertising is audience-focused. The Economist was able to successfully demonstrate this by using 60 different creatives with 650,000 prospects. They all read the same article and the article was on their site and yet they were able to improve the results. One example of how the targeting was done was by providing an ad that talked about the Mediterranean turning into the Dead Sea while the reader was looking at an article on Mediterranean migrants. Because the ad and the article were related, it got much better click-through rates.

Increased Transparency

Programmatic platforms give advertisers and marketers more transparency. Companies are able to easily see where their ads are appearing and the kind of customer that is looking at them. They can also examine the overall cost of those ads. All of this can be seen in real-time using the platform or other reporting software. For this reason, there’s no need to wait for the end of a campaign to determine its viability.

Omnichannel Approach

Google Ads works for certain display advertising. If it has a downside it’s the fact that the ads can only be shown on websites that are partnered with Google. With programmatic platforms, you can show your ads on Google’s Display Network along with hundreds of other networks, including social media networks. Centralizing your advertising efforts means less time managing ads.

Real-Time Measurements

One of the best qualities that this type of advertising provides is its ability to measure data. That along with the fact that it does it in real-time makes it very powerful. Once a campaign is launched, the advertiser can see exactly how it is performing. With most other types of advertising, it’s necessary to wait until the campaign finishes to see how it did.

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When Should You Consider a Programmatic Campaign?

The correct answer to this is ASAP. As we covered above, the benefits of programmatic over traditional display networks are vast. If you have the budget, then making the move to programmatic is recommended.

One clear example of when to move to programmatic is to scale your advertising beyond your current audience. If your audience is primarily on social media or if your product is popular and selling strong, you may be ready to scale and expand to new networks. No platform will help you do this faster and with more efficiency than programmatic display.

Another time to consider programmatic would be your audience targeting. These platforms have more data and relevant websites available to advertisers. If you’re targeting a niche yet sizeable audience or if your audience is sensitive in nature (think medical, healthcare, financial, etc.) programmatic platforms may give you more flexibility.

The Growing Popularity of Programmatic Display Advertising

Over the last several years print advertising has significantly declined while advertising online has seen exponential growth and by all accounts is poised to continue this growth well into the future. According to GroupM, online advertising will soon represent up to 95% of all advertising being done globally. It is likely to reach 99% fairly quickly. Other sources suggest that more than 80% of the ads purchased are through programmatic networks. This could mean that as much as 65 billion dollars will be spent on this type of advertising as soon as 2020 and is set to increase over the foreseeable future.

Far too many businesses miss out on the value this type of campaign could bring them because of the perception that it is too complicated for them to use. Even so, once a company wraps its head around it and starts, the results are tremendous and they find it is not as complicated as it first appeared. That’s why it’s highly recommended that you take a deeper look at how programmatic display advertising can benefit your business.

Final Thoughts on Programmatic Display

It’s really hard to go wrong using programmatic advertising. You’re able to target your audience and to examine data in real-time. You can achieve a high return on investment and examine reports with insights unavailable with other forms of advertising. You’re able to put the ads on many different channels. Essentially this type of advertising is considered 100% fail-proof.


Austin Cline is the founder and CEO of ASUN Digital. He frequently writes about brand strategy and digital marketing with expertise in B2B marketing. He has served as a senior director of marketing and director of digital and web for previous marketing agencies and has over 10 years of marketing experience. You can follow him on Twitter at @_austincline or connect with him on LinkedIn by visiting his profile.