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Direct vs. Programmatic Ads: What to Consider

Get the most out of your marketing efforts by understanding the differences between direct and programmatic ads. Learn which one works best for you with this guide from StorifyMe.

In order to get the most out of your marketing you need to do two things. First, you need to understand modern marketing tools and trends. And second, you need to understand your brand and how it relates to these tools and trends. Seeing how big the modern marketing landscape is, you'd be forgiven not to know a tool or two. But, regardless of what your brand is like, you should be aware of the two basic types of ads. So, we will use this article to outline the differences between direct and programmatic ads and how to use them best.

Understanding the basics

Let's start off by exploring the key aspects of both direct ads and programmatic ads. That way, you will have a decent idea of what role they can play in a marketing campaign and how you can potentially use them.

Direct ads

Direct ads, also known as traditional or direct media buying, refer to the process of purchasing ad space directly from publishers or media outlets. It involves a direct relationship between the advertiser and the publisher. This highlights one of the main differences between direct and programmatic ads, which is that direct add bypass intermediaries or automated systems. Direct ads involve a manual buying process. Advertisers typically reach out to publishers directly to negotiate and secure ad placements. In direct advertising, the pricing is often fixed or negotiated between the advertiser and the publisher. This means that advertisers agree on a specific cost for a set duration or a number of impressions.

With direct ads, you have more control over where your ads appear. You can choose specific websites, social media platforms, TV channels, or other media outlets to display your advertisements. This allows for precise targeting and better brand alignment in your marketing. Furthermore, direct ads offer more flexibility in terms of customization. During the design process, you can work closely with publishers to tailor ad formats, sizes, and placements to meet your specific needs and branding requirements.

A billboard next to a road with a direct ad
One of the more notable differences between direct and programmatic ads is that direct ads don't have to be digital.

The main goal of direct ads should be to build relationships. Direct ads, in effect, foster direct relationships between advertisers and publishers. This enables better communication and collaboration, allowing advertisers to align their messaging and goals more effectively with the publisher's platform. Lastly, direct ads often provide access to premium ad inventory. This includes high-quality and brand-safe placements on popular and highly sought-after media channels or websites.

Programmatic ads

On the other hand, programmatic ads refer to the automated buying and selling of digital advertising inventory through technology platforms and algorithms. Instead of traditional manual negotiations, programmatic ads rely on real-time bidding (RTB) and data-driven decision-making. This makes them a bit more modern when compared to direct ads and gives them some unique features.

The first of such features is automated buying. Programmatic ads utilize automated systems to purchase ad inventory in real-time auctions. Advertisers use demand-side platforms (DSPs) to set targeting parameters, budgets, and bid prices, while publishers use supply-side platforms (SSPs) to offer ad inventory to advertisers. Such systems allow for RTB (Real-Time Bidding). This is when advertisers bid on ad impressions in real-time auctions. When a user visits a website or app, information about the user and the ad space is sent to ad exchanges, which facilitate the auction process. Advertisers' bids are compared, and the highest bidder wins the opportunity to display their ad.

Customer Targeting

Arguably the biggest benefit of programmatic ads is that they provide advanced targeting capabilities. Through them, you can use data to target specific audiences based on factors such as demographics, behavior, interests, location, and more. This data-driven targeting enables you to reach your target audience with greater precision. Furthermore, programmatic ads allow for real-time campaign optimization. This means that you can monitor ad performance metrics, such as click-through rates (CTR) or conversions, and make adjustments in real-time. This optimization can greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your campaigns.

Target customers
The more you need to target specific customer groups, the more important it is to use programmatic ads.

Similar to direct ads, programmatic ads provide access to a vast inventory of ad placements across a wide range of websites, apps, and digital platforms. You can also count on dynamic pricing based on the supply and demand of ad inventory. Advertisers may set bid limits or budgets to control costs, and the auction process determines the final price paid for each impression.

Programmatic ads are chosen when advertisers prioritize efficiency, scalability, and data-driven decision-making. They offer the ability to reach a wide range of audiences, optimize campaigns in real time, and benefit from advanced targeting capabilities. Programmatic ads are particularly suitable for advertisers who seek automation, cost efficiencies, and the ability to target specific audiences at scale.

The main differences between direct and programmatic ads

Now that we have a decent idea of both direct and programmatic ads, let's boil down their main differences.

The two biggest differences between direct and programmatic ads are the buying process and the level of automation. Direct ads involve a manual buying process, where advertisers negotiate and purchase ad inventory directly from publishers. On the other hand, programmatic ads involve an automated buying process, where advertisers use technology platforms and algorithms to purchase ad inventory through real-time auctions.

When it comes to automation, direct ads rely on direct negotiations and human interaction to secure ad placements. In contrast, programmatic ads leverage automated systems, data, and algorithms to facilitate the buying and selling of ad inventory.

So, what does this mean in practice? Well, in order to make a smart choice between direct and programmatic ads, you first need to consider your marketing budget and your marketing needs.

Budget constraints

Direct ads give you more control over your budget. Seeing that you can negotiate a fixed price for your ads, you will have far better control over how much money you actually spend on ads. As such, it is easier to ensure that your marketing stays within your budget. This isn't to say that programmatic ads cannot be cost-effective. But to make them so, you will likely need to invest more money and find an advertiser that is closely related to your brand.

A person going over a budget in order to weigh out the differences between direct and programmatic ads.
Consult with an experienced marketing manager to figure out what your budget should look like.

Modern marketing is saturated with content of every type and duration. Therefore, it is paramount that you focus on quality instead of quantity. Well, quality focus tends to be easier with direct ads. While a single ad may not be perfectly personalized, it is far easier and cheaper to create. Modern tools make creating quality marketing content far easier. Meanwhile, programmatic ads tend to cost more simply because they are more difficult to create.

Marketing needs

It should be fairly obvious that different brands have different marketing needs. As such, it is important that you carefully outline yours before you opt for either direct or programmatic ads. If you are more focused on engaging a large target audience and finding out as much as you can about them, we would advise that you opt for programmatic ads. The features and the data they provide are invaluable when it comes to personalization. And, while there are other ways to gather customer data, ad analytics tends to be the best for the purposes of marketing development.

If, on the other hand, you wish to engage a customer base that you are already familiar with, and don't want to spend a fortune in doing so, we would advise for direct ads. With these, you can properly outline what you want to say and invest in creating a small number of top-quality ads. These ads stand to bring in far more revenue and improve your overall conversion rates. After all, this should be the end goal of all marketing campaigns. A small number of ads doesn't really require automation. And simply by tracking the customer's response, you will see whether they need improvement. So, while programmatic ads offer a ton of features, you should first consider whether you actually need them.

Final thoughts on what to choose

Using any type of ad, be it direct or programmatic, is better than using none. In many cases, a combination of both direct and programmatic ads can be beneficial, allowing advertisers to leverage the strengths of each approach to achieve their marketing goals. But, if you plan on focusing on one, it is important to fully understand the differences between direct and programmatic ads. A good rule of thumb is to decide whether you wish to engage an existing customer base, or you wish to build a new one. Existing customers don't require that much marketing to return to you. You simply need to remind them of your brand, and what you offer. Therefore, direct ads will do the trick. But, if you wish to build a new customer base, you may need to invest in programmatic ads and learn as much as you can from their data.

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