What Matters Most in B2B Digital Advertising

With so much information available about programmatic advertising, it can be difficult to make sense of what’s what regarding the technology, let alone decide on the best approach for your business. In this article, we’ll take a deep-dive into the weird, wonderful world of digital advertising. For all you TLDR folks (you know who you are), here are some key takeaways:

  • Despite the pandemic, ad spend is growing. It’s predicted to increase by 2.4% globally this year.
  • Waterfall auctions are out, header bidding is in. Header bidding gives simultaneous access to publisher inventory on several ad exchanges.
  • When used as part of your strategy to surround target accounts, display ads work to keep your product or service top-of-mind with all the individual personas on the buying team.
  • Time is money, and you need to get your ads launched without delay. 6sense’s display ad capabilities are 100% self-service, and campaigns go live within 24 hours.
  • Account-based engagement starts with identifying the best accounts to work. And while the ad technology you choose should give you immediate access to available inventory, it’s the one-two punch of hyper-targeting personas with just-in-time display ads that drive engagement. 

Contents (jump to):

What to look for in an ad platform

A couple of things are certain: digital ad campaigns should be simple yet speedy to configure and launch, and they should reach the right buyers at target accounts in the moments that matter. There are technical aspects that make a difference on ad serving precision, and then there’s market hearsay based on outdated information.  Our goal here is to highlight the best approaches a company can take in implementing account-based display advertising.  

To say 2020 has been a challenge is an understatement, and yet, ad spend is predicted to  increase this year by 2.4% worldwide. Advertising is a key tactic for businesses worldwide, and as ad spend increases it’s more important than ever to engage the right audiences and optimize campaigns. Many B2B marketers are investing in account-based advertising platforms for exactly this reason.

Now let’s break down what you should look for in an ad platform as part of your account-based programs — and the key criteria to keep in mind as you evaluate vendors.

Evaluating reach

When you go to a site like Forbes, you see ads that are related to B2B sites you recently visited or keywords you have searched. Forbes, like many other industry or media sites, is a publisher. They have ad space, or inventory, to sell to advertisers so they can generate revenue. Through a bidding process, one buyer wins the inventory and their ads are served. Your reach is the number of unique visitors who are served an ad.

Reach is the holy grail of digital advertising; get your ad in front of the greatest number of people so you can drive them to your website and close deals. Yet, achieving maximum reach is commonly misunderstood.

Reach is the result of several different technologies that work together in the advertising world. The critical moment is the auction. It used to be a waterfall event where a publisher set the priority for everything from the ad network to space on a page to the price for the placement. This was a much slower process and could affect reach if you weren’t first in line. But like all things in tech, a new auction methodology was developed.

Header bidding blew the doors off waterfall auctions by giving simultaneous access to publisher inventory on several ad exchanges, allowing many demand partners to bid at the same time. This is the purest definition of an auction, where the highest bidder wins. 

So what?

Well, this means that you may now have a better opportunity for your ads to be served to the right audience… depending on the underlying technology. 

What to look for in an ad platform when considering reach

Ask your vendor to provide a list of ad exchanges they work with so you can evaluate your potential reach. However, technology isn’t the only thing to consider with reach. Your data — about prospects, their buying stage, and their buying team — is the difference between targeting the right prospect and just serving an ad. With 6sense, insight data (e.g., data about which accounts are in-market to buy, where they are on the buying journey, and which personas comprise the buying team) helps you reach your intended audience and optimize campaign spend.

Ad technology: the CliffsNotes version

So many options, so little time to evaluate every option. Here’s a very high-level overview of the most salient parts of ad technology to know about:

  • Demand-side platform (DSP). A DSP is where a buyer — an agency or a direct customer — manages digital ads and optimizes the campaign strategy around bidding, data, targeting, conversions, etc.
  • Supply-side platform (SSP). An SSP is where sellers (publishers) auction ad space in an automated way. SSPs allow publishers to maximize the price of impressions. 
  • Ad Exchanges. Much like stock exchanges, ad exchanges facilitate the operation of supply (sell) and demand (buy). There are thousands of ad exchanges, but few have achieved the scale of Google AdX, Xandr (AppNexus), and Rubicon — and the top 50-100 have access to 95% of the inventory.
  • Header bidding. Also known as pre-bidding, header bidding is a way for publishers to offer ad space to many SSPs or ad exchanges at the same time. This enhancement effectively did away with the concept of premium and remnant ad space.


Demand-side platforms (DSPs) 

You might have heard that one DSP is better because it has greater reach. There’s some confusion in the market when it comes to DSPs — mainly that depending on which one you have, its access could limit your reach. With the introduction of header bidding, the idea of limited reach is no longer a valid point of contention since now all DSPs have access to the same inventory.

Today’s ABM platforms include digital ad capabilities, and you should know which DSP is used to manage your ad campaigns. 6sense is a custom-built DSP built on top of Xandr (AppNexus), a programmable DSP. That means our industry-leading account identification, intent data, and predictive models power your ability to serve relevant ads to the right accounts at the right time. 

Xandr (AppNexus) is one of the few providers that can play in the SSP, ad exchange, and DSP space simultaneously, giving 6sense customers access to all ad exchanges, such as Google, Rubicon, and Index Exchange. Access to more ad exchanges increases the probability of serving an ad.

Now, do not misinterpret this as indiscriminate ad serving; it’s about getting the right message in front of the right person at the right time. 6sense uses intent data, predictive models, and your ideal customer profile (ICP) to pinpoint ad placement. More on that in a bit.

Supply-side platforms (SSPs)

Like DSPs, an SSP connects to an ad exchange and alerts it to the available ad inventory. SSPs centralize the ad inventory, which allows publishers to figure out the minimum price and participate in real-time bidding. A “good” SSP makes publisher inventory available to a wide variety of buyers (DSPs) in the market and sells to the highest bidder.

Don’t forget: Xandr (AppNexus) is an exchange with both DSP and SSP capabilities. This means that 6sense customers have access to all major ad exchanges, providing maximized access to inventory — an important factor for ad serving. 

Header bidding 

As discussed, header bidding provides publishers a way to offer ad space to multiple SSPs or ad exchanges simultaneously. This type of bidding gives all advertisers the same access to inventory on big names like Forbes, ESPN, and Accuweather, which means that the days of premium inventory are gone. As header bidding gains in popularity, it’s created an open market for ad space resulting in an increase in price of inventory, according to eMarketer which could explain why header bidding is seeing more rapid adoption amongst publishers. 

What about private marketplaces (PMPs)? Here, a publisher sells ad space to a small group of buyers through an auction. This might be why some claim premium inventory access. PMPs were thought to provide better brand safety than what was available on the open market. With the adoption of ads.txt and the industry-wide trend of using quality vendors, this argument loses ground. You might be most interested in this type of arrangement if you have a full page ad that requires specific placement. 

So, while the claims of greatest reach and premium inventory sound amazing, the reality is that it’s more like fool’s gold. Publishers need to monetize their space and with header bidding, the inventory of ad space is available to all advertisers alike. The ad space is yours for the right price — and knowing that the highest bidder wins means you want to spend your money wisely on the most valuable prospects.

So what do reach and our cast of characters mean to you?

Depending on what ad network you choose, or the account-based ad vendor you choose, it can affect your ability to launch ads quickly and reach your target audience. You should look for a platform that has the combination of access to multiple ad exchanges and the best data to target the audiences you care about. 6sense designed self-service advertising capabilities to provide maximum audience reach in real time, so customers can engage with prospects in a matter of hours, not days.

Reach and timeliness are important factors in the ad game, but targeting accounts and personas showing intent in a timely manner is striking real gold.

Transparency and brand safety

With header bidding democratizing the process, you might be wondering about brand safety and transparency. With 6sense, like many other ABM platform vendors, brand safety is top of mind. 

6sense’s brand safety guidelines outline how we work with Xandr (AppNexus) to provide open access to brand-safe quality inventory, like requiring adherence to ads.txt standard to flush out unauthorized resellers, and also requiring default and active filtration of explicit websites and fraudulent websites — among other policy requirements.

Prior to a launch, customers can detail which companies, websites, and ad inventory to include and exclude. Once your ad campaign has been launched, your team is able to see exactly where your ads have been placed, which accounts were reached, the ad spend per account, and the resulting level of account engagement from the campaign.

What matters most? Results.

Serving more ads to more people might not generate the results you want. The number of impressions and clickthrough rate (CTR) help you understand how many people are viewing or clicking on your ad, but they don’t give you the full picture of how your campaigns are driving engagement with target accounts. When used as part of your strategy to surround accounts, display ads work effectively to keep your solution or products top of mind with the account and personas most likely to be included in the buying committee. To measure surround programs, 6sense provides account-based campaign metrics like view-through rate (i.e., accounts that engaged with your website after being served ads), accounts with increased engagement, and newly engaged accounts. 

With most buying activity done in the Dark Funnel™, marketers need a way to see detailed activity data that can help discern qualified buyers from unqualified buyers. It’s not enough for sales and marketing teams to go after accounts that may be interested; they need to know when they’re prepared to buy.

6sense’s dynamic segmentation continuously surfaces accounts that meet your ICP, are showing intent to buy, and (with our AI-powered predictive models) where they are in their buying journey. Paired with the industry-leading, patented account identification capabilities of our 6signal Graph, creating hyper-targeted ads for every persona on the buying team enables you to get the most out of programmatic display campaigns.

Speed to market

Once you know who you should target, what the right messaging is, and where you want to reach them, the next step is to quickly get the ad campaign up and running. Because speed to market is incredibly important in the competitive realm of display advertising, you want as little lag as possible when it comes to launching ads.

Whether you’re promoting a webinar, launching a new offering, reacting to competitive market dynamics, or reaching a new ICP because of a global pandemic, waiting is unacceptable. And days can be the difference between amazing results and just so-so results. 

With 6sense’s display advertising capabilities, you can reach key personas within the right accounts with targeted advertising based on account data with no delay in launching an ad. There are no 6sense humans in the backend setting up your display campaign: it’s 100% self-service, and campaigns go live within 24 hours. 

With deep insights about who you’re targeting and when to engage, your bidding strategy is much more informed and you’re able to refine your media spend to target only the best accounts and personas. When you configure your campaign, you control how much budget you want to allocate to a particular campaign- your ad spend is controlled by you. 6sense provides insight and control into how your campaign is exhausting budget to keep your team on track to use your allocated marketing budget.


“Orchestration” here refers to a platform’s ability to deliver the right message to the right account at the right time across any channel or tactic (e.g., ad, chat, web) throughout the buying journey — automatically, at scale, and with minimal human intervention.

Successfully orchestrating account engagement requires a platform that leverages predictive, intent, behavioral, and other account data to dynamically engage the right accounts at the right time. Without these capabilities, orchestration requires infinitely more manual time, and customer experiences are likely to be less relevant, consistent, and personalized… and scaling programmatic ad programs running more than one campaign is the stuff of dreams. 

At 6sense, we create a personalized buying experience across channels based on the rich insights we have about in-market accounts. Our marketing team creates awareness with relevant digital ads, a personalized welcome and conversation stream with Six (our chatbot that offers relevant content), and guides prospects to a personalized content hub with specially curated content related to the interests of every member of the buying committee. With 6sense orchestration, this type of instant engagement becomes manageable.

Display tactics

Your chosen ad platform should be able to support all ad types out of the box. For instance, 6sense supports display ads served through the 6sense platform, retargeting ads, and ads displayed via external display providers (e.g., Google and LinkedIn). Here’s a look at how we use 6sense to run our own advertising:

Google ads

Google receives over 5.6 billion searches per day and over 59% of shoppers use Google to research a product or service before purchasing. That’s a wide net — however, Google provides few standalone capabilities for ABM. By integrating 6sense with Google ads, you can implement an ABM strategy that will help you better target and engage the prospects you want. Consider this list of tactics for a successful ABM approach to Google ads using 6sense.

LinkedIn ads

Together, 6sense and LinkedIn enable mutual customers to leverage 6sense’s account data and insights for LinkedIn ads. 6sense’s dynamic segments can be synced to LinkedIn Campaign Manager to optimize ad targeting and spend on relevant audiences.

Once your 6sense segments are synced with LinkedIn Campaign Manager, you can leverage that dynamic account data for LinkedIn ads. In fact, while most other vendors only support Sponsored Content posts on LinkedIn, 6sense Segments for LinkedIn ads supports all ad types, including:

  • Sponsored Messaging
  • Messaging Ads
  • Conversation Ads
  • Text Ads
  • Sponsored Content
  • Single Image Ads
  • Dynamic Ads
  • Video
  • Carousel


In a perfect world, an interested buyer would make a purchase immediately. When that doesn’t happen, there’s retargeting to remind your target audience of your business — and specific products or services already of interest to them — after they’ve left your site. Retargeting follows potential buyers to unrelated websites, to social media, and even as they research your competitors.

In order to meaningfully retarget prospects, you need to be able to segment people based on intent data and other key indicators you’ve gathered to create relevant ads that drive them to purchase. With an Account Engagement Platform like 6sense that brings all that data into one place and enables you to create ads in the same system, you can reconnect with interested buyers in less time and more effectively.

The final takeaway

We’ve covered a lot of ground — ad tech, ad platforms, and ad tactics. What’s most important to remember is that account-based engagement starts with identifying the best accounts, those that are in-market to buy. And while the ad technology behind the platform should give you immediate access to available inventory, it’s the one-two punch of hyper-targeting personas with just-in-time display ads that drive engagement. 

If you like a list version, here are the key things you should keep in mind as you evaluate your ad platform:

  • Reach
  • Brand safety
  • Real-time segmentation and campaign launch
  • Targeting — and the levels of targeting and data involved
  • Ad types
  • Channels

For an even deeper dive into the above, check out our ABM Buying Guide. And stay tuned for a future blog post in which we’ll discuss ad measurement, coming soon. 

6sense provides the self-service capabilities agile marketing teams want, and uses big data and AI to light the Dark Funnel, so you can engage the right prospects at the right time. We build awareness with capabilities that CRM and automation platforms simply weren’t built for.

Learn more about what we can do for your display advertising needs.


About the Author

Maureen West

Maureen West is Director of Product Marketing for 6sense. She has been involved in developing launch strategies, defining positioning and messaging, and building Product Marketing teams for B2B SaaS companies for more than a decade.

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