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Democratizing Retail Media Through OpenRTB

The IAB's Jeffrey Bustos discusses openRTB and how his organization is tailoring programmatic specifications for today's retail media landscape.

The retail media marketplace is not just evolving, it is redefining the way consumers interact with brands. Recognizing this, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, alongside its sister organization IAB Tech Lab, have been hard at work tailoring programmatic specifications to meet the unique needs of the retail media landscape.

“Bringing programmatic buying to retail media networks will bring the efficiencies of scale and automation, while preserving the unique experience and personalization for consumers. Integrating retail media advertising capabilities to openRTB is an exciting development that will open up new demand and ensure better yield for the network and more choice for consumers,” said Shailley Singh, executive vice president of product and chief operating officer, at IAB Tech Lab.

OpenRTB Ecosystem map
OpenRTB Ecosystem map

OpenRTB, which stands for open real-time bidding, revolutionized the advertising industry by introducing a standard method for automated bidding on advertising inventory. For retailers, it's akin to a high-speed auction where ads are bought and sold in milliseconds as a webpage loads. This technology enables retailers to maximize their ad revenues by selling each ad impression to the highest bidder, ensuring that their digital shelves are stocked with products most likely to interest the customer. For brands, openRTB presents the opportunity to strategically place their products in front of the right eyes, at the right time, increasing the likelihood of conversion.

Brands face a maze of challenges in retail media — from ensuring ad relevance to maintaining consistent branding across different platforms with different creative attributes. OpenRTB aims to alleviate these concerns by providing a clear, standardized protocol for how ads are requested, what information is contained in the ad request, and how the ad creatives are ultimately rendered. This not only enhances efficiency but also ensures that brand ads align with retailer environments and consumer expectations, providing a win-win for both brands and retailers.

The consumer experience comes first. By building our own self-serve ad platform, we’ve been able to deploy our personalization science to make every on-site ad more meaningful than ever. Shoppers find what they need on our sites – while experiencing the joy of discovering new products. The end result is better advertising performance, too,” said Christine Foster, VP, product strategy and media operations, Kroger Precision Marketing.

Striking the Balance: Relevancy, Control and User Experience

In crafting the specifications for retail media, the balance between visibility for advertisers and a seamless user experience is paramount. The core assumption guiding the work is that retailers fully render product listing ads (PLAs), with a native look and feel, ensuring that the consumer experience remains consistent with organic listings. Each retail website or app is different, so there is no standard "creative" — the PLA is an extension of the organic product listing, rendered by the retailer to maintain uniformity and cohesiveness.


IAB Tech Lab has zeroed in on how to update the Native API within openRTB's "bid request" and "bid response" structure to suit the PLA format, considering constraints (like product category eligibility) and context (like user location on the retailer's site). 

To adapt openRTB for retail, we are fine-tuning our technical specifications to account for retail-specific nuances such as the relevancy of ads to the consumer's interests and the retailer's product offerings,” said Hillary Slattery, senior director of programmatic product, IAB Tech Lab. “The proposed specifications include new attributes that allow retailers to communicate detailed product metadata, in addition to implementation guidance to help retailers move toward standard programmatic executions, and create additional demand while ensuring that the real-time bidding process respects the retailer's constraints and context.

A key initiative is refining the Native API to better serve the nuanced requirements of on-site PLAs. These sponsored product placements on retailer websites present unique challenges and opportunities for endemic brands — those already in a retail relationship with the retailer. The goal is to facilitate a framework where these brands can achieve prominence in the consumer's search and browse experience while upholding the retailer's strict relevancy rules.

Retail Media's aim is to offer a more personalized and relevant journey from discovery to purchase for our customers,” said Parbinder Dhariwal, VP, GM, CVS Media Exchange (CMX). “With standardization and simplification of protocols adapted for on-site product listing ads, we’re able to preserve that experience while increasing product visibility and discovery across various customer touch points.

Looking Forward: Programmatic Standards for Retail Media

Looking to the future, the IAB is committed to establishing a set of standards that are not only robust and responsive, but also adaptive to the evolving retail media sector. Its goal is to empower retailers and brands with the tools they need to thrive in a competitive digital marketplace.

“We recognize that simply imposing pre-existing transaction standards to retail media is not viable.  Instead, this is an ambitious attempt to broaden the scope of openRTB to enable the exchange of e-commerce data and creativity while satisfying the nuances of PLAs across a range of verticals and consumer behaviors,” said James Oyedele, lead product manager for Retail Media at TripleLift.

The spec will recognize that buyers will need explicit signals such as search keywords to know when to bid, and will typically respond with a product SKU rather than creative assets. This is just one example of how different retail media is from traditional programmatic advertising, and the kind of challenges the new standard will be designed to solve. 

"Through the refinement of standards for retail media, we are paving the way for a future where retail advertising is more than just transactional — it's an engaging, integral part of the shopping experience," Singh said. "We are dedicated to ensuring that retail media not only catches up with the rest of the digital advertising world, but sets a new benchmark for consumer engagement and satisfaction."

The IAB is inviting all interested parties to contribute their insights, experiences and expertise to this exciting chapter in digital advertising's evolution. "This is the future we are building at IAB and IAB Tech Lab, and we welcome you to be a part of it," Singh said.

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