I'm here to tell you that this buzzword's the real deal, folks. And for travel industry advertisers, "real-time bidding" (RTB) presents the biggest potential to boost advertising efficiency since Google AdWords came along. Here's how it works:
Today, most of us buy ad network impressions in bulk. We buy into a particular channel, but for the most part the information we have about the individual browsers is in aggregate. They're in-market travelers. Great.
In reality, when you dig, there are in-market travelers that are traveling in six months, and there are in-market travelers that need to travel tomorrow. There are travelers who want to go to Bali for three weeks (in business class), and there are travelers that want to drive to a motel for one night. With most ad network buys, you're getting all of these user intent profiles, and you're paying the same amount to target each of them.
These profiles clearly aren't worth the same. I bet that United Airlines would pay a lot more to convert the guy who needs a last-minute (and thus full-fare) ticket than the budget-conscious tire kicker who is comparison shopping six months out. The airline has these data from cookies that get dropped when users perform searches on its own site, but without RTB, it bids the same for each of these profiles when it re-targets them across the web. Because not every bid is high enough, sometimes the airline loses and somebody else's ad shows up on a given impression when it could have been a United ad, if it had just bid higher for that impression.
RTB lets advertisers do just that: define a set of parameters under which they're willing to pay more, or less, for a given profile. And it's not that hard, thanks to a few really talented folks who have founded companies around this practice (see: AppNexus, Invite Media, MediaMath, et al.).
They manage your media buy and can adjust bidding -- in real time -- as a result of the factors that matter to you. All the work is done for you, transparently, and you get a neat report at the end of it all that shows you how many more conversions you generated as a result.
Just be careful when choosing a vendor (referred to as Demand-Side Platforms; "DSPs" -- yes another buzzword!). They're largely based on "black box" optimization engines that don't really explain themselves well. Get references, and test against a baseline. And then enjoy that extra revenue gained by more efficient media buying!