How Mark McEachran Teaches Ad-Tech Through the Lens of Retargeting

Teaching at Startup Institute Chicago has been a biannual joy for me. I’ve been an adjunct instructor for about two years, teaching one of the sessions in the digital marketing course: an intensive on display advertising. Display advertising, particularly online display advertising, continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Starting in the late 90s, there have been increasingly sophisticated systems designed to help advertisers reach their audiences online. As a consequence, online publishing has flourished—offering readers free content, paid for by the marketing messages within the pages.

[bctt tweet="Teaching Ad-Tech Through the Lens of Retargeting, by @MarkMcEachran" username="StartupInst"]In this market, advertisers play the role of buyers—picking and choosing where their ads will show up. Online publishers, in turn, reflect the seller. They control the ad space, commonly referred to as "inventory." In the modern era of online advertising, there are many layers of technology providing buyers and sellers innovative ways to achieve their goals.

My class touches on ad serving, ad networks, social media, and a few of the current events in the industry. I spend some time in a PowerPoint deck, and more time decorating a couple of whiteboards with diagrams, lines, boxes, clouds, dollar signs, and squiggles that, I swear, are trying their best to represent words.

My main objective when I’m teaching is to engage the students in the production of their own retargeting campaigns. Retargeting works by identifying a set of users who have already visited a web site, and then marketing to them as they browse other sites on the Internet. I think this hands-on approach is the best way to make sure that the knowledge that I’m sharing sticks with them after the class has concluded. As part of their ongoing coursework, they have to build a blog using WordPress. This provides the perfect opportunity to illustrate how many of the modern online advertising technologies work, as they practice serving their site blog visitors an advertising campaign.

[bctt tweet="I engage my students in the production of their own retargeting campaigns, says @MarkMcEachran" username="StartupInst"]

Gathering an Audience

The first step for my students is to set up their audience segments in a Data Management Platform (DMP) or directly in a Demand Site Platform (DSP). These two types of ad-tech companies typically provide very different services. DMPs, as their name suggests, help advertisers and publishers manage their audience data. Services can include identifying and tracking users, grouping them based on behaviors, synchronizing those data sets with other advertising technology vendors, and reporting and analytics.

For the purpose of the class, I avoid a full-fledged DMP in favor of simpler audience tools offered by one of the self-serve DSPs. A DSP is a buying platform for advertisers and agencies. In the simplest terms, they provide advertising campaign management. Buyers can choose the inventory where their campaigns run, choose the audience, geography, and a variety of other targeting options. DSPs also provide campaign performance reporting. This allows buyers to understand their return on investment (ROI) and optimize their campaigns.

Each student sets up his or her own audience segment. They download a JavaScript pixel to place on their WordPress blogs. The pixel will set a cookie on any browser that visits their page—adding the user to their audience. Back in the DSP interface, the results are almost immediate. Stats for each student’s audience are updated in near real-time.

[bctt tweet="A #DSP allows buyers to understand their return on investment, says @MarkMcEachran" username="StartupInst"]

Creating Digital Ad Campaigns

Prior to the class, I send the students two ad template files. The two most common display ads are the 300x250 pixel rectangular ad, and the 728x90 pixel banner ad. The students are instructed to create an ad showcasing their blogs, with a light attempt at creating a compelling reason to give the ad a click. Not all students have Photoshop, or the decades of learning required to navigate Adobe’s ubiquitous graphical beast, so during class I demonstrate how they can use PowerPoint to create an ad.

Diagram of Retargeting
Diagram of Retargeting

Targeting Users

With the ad in hand and the audience building, the students set up their ad campaigns in the DSP. They target the audience they’re building, and set the click-through URL to land the user back at their blog. Then we move on to inventory sources.

Most DSPs are plugged-in to a few dozen Supply Side Platforms (SSPs) and exchanges. The SSPs and exchanges specialize in bringing publisher ad space to market. Campaigns are submitted to the SSPs in the form or real-time bids. As a user browses a publisher’s web site, the SSP is responsible for filling the ad space with an advertisement. SSPs take bids from many DSPs for every ad requested by the browser. Each DSP chooses one of many campaigns available in their respective systems, and submits it, along with a bid price, back to the SSP.

In the case of audience retargeting campaigns, the bids are usually significantly higher than non-targeted campaigns. When a request comes into the SSP from one of our users, one of our campaigns gets submitted as bid from the DSP. Subsequently, the SSP runs an auction with the bids and only the winning bidder’s campaign will show up for the user. This entire process typically takes less than 200 milliseconds.

Landing Page

Once the campaign shows up, we hope that the user will click on it. In most cases, the user will be fairly surprised to see such a precisely targeted advertisement. The average person isn’t fully aware that this technology can be leveraged by almost anyone.

I encourage students to consider the possibilities of creating campaign-specific landing pages. In some cases, this might simply be their résumé page, as most of them are courting potential employers once they finish the course at Startup Institute.

Exploring the capabilities in the online advertising ecosystem arms the students with depth of knowledge to understand higher level concepts, like campaign management, audience, marketing objectives, and optimization. We learn by doing.

I’m grateful to be given the opportunity to pass on some of the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years. The team at the Startup Institute Chicago is a warm, welcoming, and intelligent group—whether they are instructors, staff, or student. I feel very lucky to have been recruited to participate with such a group of talented individuals.

[bctt tweet="#Onlineads help us understand other #marketing concepts. We learn by doing, says @MarkMcEachran" username="StartupInst"]