The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic saw a dramatic decline in advertising spend across the board, encompassing both top-of-the-funnel brand advertising (designed to generate awareness among new customers) and mid-to-bottom funnel performance advertising (aimed at generating leads and sales).

As businesses adjusted to their new trading environment, advertising spend gradually recovered, revealing an interesting trend as we moved into 2021: performance advertising, so often regarded as the ‘down-market’ side of the marketing business, is attracting a larger percentage of ad spending than ever before.

Performance advertising on the rise

Part of performance marketing’s image problem has been that, traditionally, Performance Marketers have been prepared to sacrifice the quality of their ad placements in exchange for a higher quantity of mid-to-lower funnel conversions, i.e., they have been less ‘picky’ about the sort of content their ads appear next to, so long as those websites deliver traffic and leads.

Bearing this in mind, the current rise in performance advertising spend is even more interesting as the ‘brand safety’ issues associated with online ads have only increased over the past twelve months. Indeed, 2020 saw an explosion in toxic content and misinformation online, particularly on leading social media channels.

A new ecosystem

Until recently, the internet offered brand marketers either the Walled Gardens of social media platforms or an Open Internet, comprised of millions of individual websites. Both ecosystems bring their own problems. Content on social media platforms is user-generated, effectively making brand safety impossible to monitor. As a result, ads from quality brands are displayed next to miracle cures, fake news, and racist content. Likewise, the quality on offer via The Open Internet does not fare much better. For every New York Times, there are a hundred websites that deliver a far lower quality of content.

However, there is a third ecosystem brand marketers should leverage in 2021: the Curated Internet. This ‘third way’ successfully taps into the inventory of the quality publishers in the Open Internet while filtering out the lower quality sites. Obviously, brands want their ads only to appear next to professionally produced editorial content, but such inventory comes at a premium. Performance advertisers must find the right balance for them between high quality, brand-safe ad placements and the cost per action that those placements generate.

Thankfully, this balance is easier to achieve than you might think. With significantly more users demanding and accessing more reliable news sources and content on the internet, the volume of quality inventory available has risen significantly in recent times. The trick for performance marketers is to find this quality inventory at scale, which is exactly what a Curated Internet – an ecosystem managed by one platform that aggregates quality inventory at scale while minimizing brand risks – is designed to deliver.

A fresh view

Brands used to upper-funnel campaigns may have less experience optimizing toward lower-funnel KPIs. A key solution to this is for brands to seek out Guaranteed Outcomes from their ad placements. For example, some tech platforms driving site traffic offer a guaranteed cost per visit instead of just guaranteeing a click. This ensures that the user not only clicks but also actually visits the brand’s desired landing page. Typically, more than a half of clicks do not arrive at a landing page, so transacting on a cost per visit basis provides the brand with much better performance results. Some solutions now go even further and offer a Cost per Incremental Visit, further guaranteeing that the site visit is from a new user.

A final challenge for brands is to ensure they can successfully measure a site visit, a lead or a sale, and upper-funnel metrics in the same campaign. Some ads may not lead immediately to action but still have a longer-term brand impact. However, advanced multi-touch attribution (MTA) models are still beyond the current capabilities of many brands, and these solutions are under threat as cookies disappear.

One easy way to guarantee brands get a longer-term impact is to measure whether the ad is seen. In the Open Internet, viewability rates are low, generally hovering below 50%. Likewise, with social media, in-view time is particularly weak, with a video ad averaging only 1.7 seconds in-view time. By contrast, a Curated Internet offers performance advertisers the opportunity to drive improved results for viewability and in-view time.

The emergence of the Curated Internet means that, in 2021, performance and brand marketing need no longer work in silos. It is now possible to develop sustainable leads on a budget while maintaining brand safety. It’s now realistic for ads to be placed next to quality content from premium publishers while achieving lower funnel leads. For brand advertisers looking to deliver maximum ROI on their digital ad spend, it’s time to recognize the evolution of performance advertising and the potential of the Curated Internet.

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