The Human Element in Programmatic Advertising for Higher Ed


By: Emma Rose Jul 18, 2019

The Human Element in Programmatic Advertising for Higher Ed

Programmatic Advertising sounds like a magic bullet for institutions of higher education. In using Programmatic Advertising, advertisers can spend less time buying ad space while still achieving finely targeted campaigns. The process relies heavily on artificial intelligence and automation; bringing both the best and worst of the technology along with it. Although the temptation is to “set it and forget it”, to get the best results, marketers need to preserve the human element to their ad buying.

What is Programmatic Advertising?

In short, programmatic advertising helps you deliver the right message to the right student at the right time by automating media buying. You might hear it called programmatic marketing or programmatic media buying. Whatever the name, the method uses artificial intelligence to optimize ad runs as they happen. Instead of waiting for the end of the campaign to see results and make adjustments, the AI constantly monitors results from each placement and uses them to inform the next one.

Programmatic advertising can be done in two ways:

  1. Real Time Bidding allows institutions to serve ads only to people that meet their buyer personas. So if you’re looking for 24 to 26 year olds to enroll in your post-graduate degree program, RTB will show the ad to a 23 year old bachelor’s degree holder but not to a 64 year old high school dropout, even if they’re both on the same website at the same time.

    Basically what happens is this: a user visits a website that has ad space. The website communicates with an ad exchange to say “I have ad space.” Then advertisers bid to fill the space. The highest bidder wins and gets to display their ad. Of course, the entire process is automated so it takes a fraction of a second. The site visitor is served an ad more or less instantly.
    This process can be completely automated. Marketers do the work they’re best at – creating exceptional ads that evoke human connection, and computers do what their best at – quickly assessing huge volumes of data to meet user need. The result is targeted advertising campaign that requires little marketer intervention.

  2. Programmatic direct enables marketers to reserve a certain number of impressions on high demand properties in advance. This guarantees their placement with valuable publishers. Generally offered only by premium publishers, it is more expensive. It’s also more time-consuming because you have to broker the deal ahead of time.

Programmatic advertising was heralded as the hot new thing for a few years. From 2014 to 2016 programmatic ad spending nearly tripped. That upward trajectory was forecasted to continue. Then in 2018, the technology got ahead of the people using it. The honeymoon period was over, and marketers found some drawbacks. Still, when used thoughtfully, programmatic advertising can confer major benefits to institutions of higher education.

Why it’s useful for higher education

Almost every institution of higher education is trying to achieve the same basic goals:

  • Increase enrollments
  • Drive qualified applicants to the institution’s website
  • Promote program awareness

Achieving these has become more difficult as the space gets noisier. There are more institutions vying for fewer students. Meanwhile students are engaging across more platforms than ever before. They’re on their phone, tablet, desktop and laptop – often all in one day. They’re researching on more than one channel, using search engines, websites, social media, and brochures. There’s no single place where you can advertise and know that you’ve reached all or even most of your ideal students.

There are also too many publishers for anyone to keep up with manually. Instead of negotiating individual ad spends with a dozen publishers, you can work with millions using the AI of programmatic advertising. Your ads can appear across desktop, video, mobile and other platforms.

Aside from saving marketers tons of time, programmatic advertising also allows for micro-targeting. Ads are served based on demographics and context, so you can be certain that the right message is reaching the right student.

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Potential Pitfalls

While programmatic advertising can be a valuable tool, it isn’t foolproof. Relying on artificial intelligence can lead to some undesirable results, such as:

  • Ads next to questionable content. It’s possible that your ad might show up at the beginning of a YouTube video showing a drunken frat party, for example. Such placements have caused issues for brands in the past. In fact, in the last year or so, there’s been a big enough outcry that many display networks improving the brand safety of programmatic advertising. You can help protect yourself by identifying categories of sites where you don’t want your ad to appear and by specifying a list of negative keywords or blacklisted websites.
  • Potential for fraud. Some ads end up on websites that pretend to be well-known and reputable publishers but are really dummy sites looking to rake in the ad revenue. Ad fraud isn’t only a problem of programmatic advertising, but it is a concern because there is no human in the mix to recognize when something isn’t right. Protect your ad spend by looking for display networks that have worked with fraud protection agencies and have a good reputation.

These are the perils of automated advertising. While AI is rapidly improving, it isn’t always as smart as it should be. It doesn’t really understand context or nuance, it’s simply looking for the right data points. You can help it perform well by creating boundaries and exercising human discretion.

The human element

Programmatic advertising can make marketing campaigns easier to execute, but your marketing team still has work to do. The AI uses your criteria to target your ads, so you need to truly know your audience. How old are they? What are they interested in? Where do they live? A sharp understanding of who your ideal audience is will make your ad placements more useful.

Understanding your audience is also essential for creating great ad content. There’s no point in getting your message in front of your ideal student if it doesn’t catch their attention. Fortunately, creativity is where human marketers excel. With all the free time created by leaving media buying to the AI’s, human marketers can create truly exceptional advertising content that makes students excited to learn more about your institution.

Education Dynamics is a leader in higher education digital marketing. We deliver the right prospects for the right programs. Download our Digital Marketing Playbook today to learn more today’s trends in higher education marketing and humanizing your programmatic advertising efforts.