Art & Science: Behind PopSugar.com’s New Programmatic Strategy

colette-dill-lernerPopSugar, the online media platform blending everything from celebrity content covering Prince Williams’ new baby to a hand-selected beauty and fashion subscription service, is in the process of creating a full-scale digital outfit to bring content and commerce to a new level.

Colette Dill-Lerner, who recently joined PopSugar as EVP of Performance Marketing, spent close to four years at Proactiv’s parent company, Guthy-Renker, where she helped spearhead digital demand creation. She is tasked with unifying PopSugar’s owned, earned and paid media categories.

On September 16, Dill-Lerner will speak at AdExchanger’s Programmatic I/O conference in New York City.

AdExchanger: How has your background prepped your strategy at this media platform?

COLETTE DILL-LERNER: I was brought onboard to really build our performance marketing team, so that includes search, display, paid social – all of the various pieces of the paid ecosystem. We’ve been really successful since the company was [founded in 2006] and we started with the owned and the earned media, but we had never ventured in to the paid category. To really take the company to the next level, we need to have all three of the media levers working. We’re implementing it from the back end, similar to what I did at Guthy-Renker. I’m putting in everything from the technology all the way up to the actual media-buying practice… this time, programmatic is really what it’s all about, so we’re putting in a lot of technology and a lot less human infrastructure than I would have in developing something like this two to three years ago.

What deadlines are you setting for yourself with your programmatic rollout?

It is that delicate balance of media performance marketing. Performance marketing by its very design is based on overlap, so of course I have short-term goals I have to operate against, but when you’re rolling out a practice, what my experience has been is that you have to be very careful threading the needle between what is going to give you short term gain and what’s going to give you long-term strategic outcomes. Everything has to be built [from the ground up.] In doing that, there are a lot of very short-term tactical engagements that have to happen around, ‘What is our best image?’ ‘What is our best call to action?’ ‘Where do we drive people on the site?’

At the same time, I have to think about if we want to be able to have large-scale performance advertising campaigns, it means that [you have to be] very conscious of brand and that your testing looks very different than it would if you were running a hardcore [direct response] campaign. You have to think about your longer-term goals. One of the things I’m very excited about coming to work for Brian Sugar is he really believes in the same vision that I have. That it’s all about embracing programmatic and immediately putting in a practice that involves more advanced marketing techniques around attribution and customer path-ing, which can be really difficult. You can’t build a practice around fractional attribution and customer path-ing based on personas in six weeks.

At the same time, when you hire someone to come and build a full marketing practice in six weeks, you want consumers coming to your site in a new way, you want to shorten up the buy cycle, or whatever your targets are, [such as] reaching a new audience.

How are you differentiating your strategy between programmatic media vs. the commerce component?

I am acquiring customers around ShopStyle right now and in doing that, I am all about platform marketing at this point and it is very different to think programmatically about shopper marketing as opposed to acquisition marketing. It’s a big learning experience for me… It’s like a bird flying into the glass door. You know, logically, that the door is there, but you sometimes forget because you get so caught up in what you’re doing. Shopper commerce is less about problem-solution, which has been my life for the past few years, and is much more about engaging consumers in either impulsive or desired behaviors and moving them through that buy cycle.

I’ll use a different example. When I was at Proactiv, we knew who our customer was. They have a heritage in direct response TV and DR offline, in print and out-of-home, that’s best of breed. And as a result, Proactiv is very clear about who its customer is and where they want to find her and how they want to find her. When we implemented programmatic there, it was about, ‘Ok, well we already know all this stuff, so we’re going to jump to the head of the line and use data to get us to this person.’ When you are doing shopper commerce, you have a much broader set of customers and much more diverse motivating behavior factors.

People use the site for different reasons at different moments in time and they’re really disparate. Customers are not all in-market. The same woman will buy a purse for one reason and a jacket for another. And so, we have to speak less to individuals and more to mindsets and where customers are in-cycle, but at the same time, I do believe in the core fundamental of programmatic, which is we are marketing to an individual.

How do you view attribution?

Attribution is absolutely critical. There are moments in time when marketers want data to have data and they can’t always leverage it the way that they should. And in general, media marketing folks run in to trouble because they want data but it’s not all actionable. With attribution, it’s incredibly actionable, but I think also very intense. I would almost use the term ‘religion’ around multi-touch attribution modeling for customers to really back out to that intent.

It’s complicated, and you need to have the right people in your organization, or more likely, the right partners, to help you get through that. To build an attribution practice – we’re talking a very data and tech-heavy practice – and make that data meaningful and actionable, is really difficult. Your technology partners are making decisions, so they are creating the corollaries or the cohorts and they have to understand not just data, but how models are built and how it ties to your business because they’re going to make a lot more calls on what the data’s doing than people realize. That’s one of the issues of programmatic to begin with. By its very nature, programmatic is making human-type decisions.

Because of how they’re prioritizing the data pieces, the engineer who writes that very first set of code is making some very, very human choices that marketers, I’m not sure, are understanding are happening. I don’t know if anyone has figured out the right balance of where you need a human and where you need a computer, but I think we’re swinging too far in the other direction, where we’re saying everything can be programmatic and let’s optimize our media all the way down to the impression level using a machine, as opposed to what I think was the conversation about two years ago, ‘Let’s automate work streams so we can free up our more senior media people to be looking at the granular details and be making those decisions.’

When you think of data, do you think online retail has drawn inspiration from the online travel sector? I think, immediately, of American Eagle bringing on Expedia.com’s GM, who really helped build out their data algorithm engine.

I think that’s a great analogy. The travel model of decisioning, the way the site works to the way the media works is really what’s being adopted. About two years ago, when I started working with attribution, everyone was talking about financial services because financial services had so much consumer data and they had modeled it so effectively and they had dealt with all of the privacy issues that we’re all still struggling with. Now, I think we’re looking more at the travel piece, where we’re looking at, ‘Okay, maybe it’s less PII based and more behavioral targeting [BT] based” and what are the BT signals? Behavioral data is inherently cheaper than PII because you can get it yourself where you don’t have to pay a third-party data firm to upend your file to tell you what your referring URL is. You just need to have the hardware and mental capacity within your organization to pull that data in and crunch it and make it meaningful. When you’re selling acne medicine, you have a very specific target, so it’s easier to figure out, and I shouldn’t say, easier, but because I did it for so long, I knew who our customer was so clearly, but I think BT is a lot more fuzzy and I think it leaves a lot more room for the art to impact the science part of marketing.

PopSugar plays in so many channels. You’ve even tackled offline with membership delivery service PopSugar Must Have. What are you most intrigued by, from a channel perspective?

As a company, I think we’re pretty excited about Must Have and we’re pretty excited about video. Content and shopping still maintain our number one position in terms of what we put resources in. I think, from a media-buying perspective, video is starting to get more exciting. I actually said this at the last AdExchanger conference, so I’ve been pretty public about it, that I think my concerns about video have always been that the scarcity of the inventory has meant the pricing outstrips the response base, particularly because there is no click action and so, again, with the attribution, if you don’t have all those ducks in a row, it’s a really challenging medium to work with, but it’s obviously a lot more engaging.

I think mobile continues to be super exciting to me for the reverse reason. No one’s actually figured out mobile, so mobile inventory is super cheap. People argue about it, but you look at the value of the inventory and you look at things like Google’s enhanced campaigns, and I feel like the market’s speaking for itself…. The customer who is a mobile native – they have to catch her again, oftentimes, in order to get her to transact again on her tablet, so it’s about sequencing and storyboarding those messages across her engagement with not your brand, but the Internet.

I think display continues to be the center of media, though, because it’s the only truly scalable digital medium still. You can do broadcast [like on the] Yahoo homepage, or a hyper-targeted, hyper-localized FBX retargeting campaign for women in Wisconsin who also like Fab.com… I think display is very interesting around that. I think Facebook really puts a huge, seismic shift on display that I don’t know if we know where it’s going yet.

 

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