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The Best-Kept Secret in Ad Operations

The Best-Kept Secret in Ad Operations Doug Wintz

As I've mentioned in previous columns, the life of an ad operations staffer is filled with day-to-day tasks revolving around the launching of new campaigns, troubleshooting creatives, revising campaigns, managing inventory-- you know the drill.

Today, however, I'd like you to consider that you know far more than your corporate colleagues think you do. After all, who else has more intimate knowledge of your sites' performance for advertisers? This includes how ad units perform in various site sections, for specific types of advertisers and at what time of the day or week. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Frequently, because of the tactical nature of our business this institutional knowledge is overlooked, or -- even worse -- left unsaid. It therefore becomes one of the best-kept secrets of ad performance on your site. How many times have you been at the receiving end of a new campaign and said to yourself, "Oh man, here we go again. I know from experience that this isn't going to work." And then you move on to the next campaign.

One of the keys to your personal success in 2006 may be your ability to translate some of these best-kept secrets into solutions that create new ad products or packages. In doing so, you could be the source for new revenue streams-- a feat that goes far beyond simple trafficking of ads.

Challenging content

Let's take a look at an example of how your knowledge could be translated into new solutions for your company.  

One of the internet's great strengths is that it provides a gathering place for communities of users. Their value has been proven time and again. Just look at history, past and present. Geocities was acquired by Yahoo! years ago. MySpace was acquired by NewsCorp months ago. Why? Because massive numbers of like-minded users gather together in these communities, and with one acquisition a company can increase their audience significantly. Recently the phrase "social networking" has been used to describe similar sites.

From the ad ops perspective (that's you), "communities" show a different face. Sites that are composed of user-generated content create uncertainty among many advertisers. What kind of content will their ads appear on? A bona fide travel site with information about Cancun? Or, a "Girls Gone Wild" wannabe site carefully crafted by a frat boy just back from Spring Break?

Even if advertisers are not deterred by this uncertainty, there is the matter of performance. From your seat in ad ops where you schedule ads and observe performance, you know that campaigns in a community setting have shown historically low click rates. Therefore, CPMs for community sites (and this goes for community, social networking, email, chat and message board sites) are at the lower end of the rate card scale.

Be the hero

So, given all the knowledge you have as a professional in ad operations, what could you do in this situation? The options are 1) ignore it and keep scheduling campaigns 2) be the hero and come up with some potential solutions.

Think about what you do know. For instance, you may have observed that the "community" type content you work with is composed of sections that are highly populated by people interested in travel, automotive and music. What if you could aggregate the best of that content and create front door sections to those content areas?

For instance, your publisher or director for community content could select from the best travel sites-- whose content is consistently of high quality and perfect for any advertisers sponsorship. Supplement this with some data feeds with news on travel, auto and music. (This isn't brain surgery by the way-- a company called Mining Company started something similar to this in the 1990s, and it became About.com.)

Now, you've used your knowledge about the behavior of your sites' content, and created viable sponsorship areas that are attractive and a safe haven for advertisers, with more engaging content and perhaps even better performance from a clickthrough standpoint.

Why didn't the founders of your site figure this out? Maybe they were preoccupied with building the community destination. Maybe ad revenue was a secondary consideration. Maybe the site has been around for a long while and there is a reluctance to retrofit into a new model. Or maybe, just maybe, they don't know what you know?


You've got more knowledge than you may be giving yourself credit for. And new ideas are not the sole domain of writers, editors and marketers. In fact, your unique perspective on the business might yield significant new revenue opportunities. 

Doug Wintz began his interactive career with Prodigy in 1988. During that time, he pioneered the sales and development of online applications for automotive clients Toyota, Ford and Autobytel, brokerage firm DLJ Direct and grocers Dominick's and D'Agostino. He led the development of one of the first online ad networks for Softbank, managed sales/operations for gamesite Uproar and recently served as VP of digital media solutions for Lycos. Doug is currently founder and principal of DMW MediaWorks, a consultancy in interactive media and operations, with long-term clients that include the market leaders in online health, broadcast television, behavioral targeting and custom publishing.

Improving the process
The first thing to look at is the abandonment rate. If it is above 50 percent something is probably wrong with the form. I often see abandonment rates above 90 percent. This is usually because the form is badly designed. 

In my experience the most common cause of high abandonment rates is layering multiple purposes into a contact form. The purpose of a contact form is to let potential customers send you contact information. However, people often use contact forms as a means of doing market research, for example asking: "How did you discover our website?" If you do this, understand you are paying for this market research by throwing away potential sales.

It is well known that every additional question placed on a contact form discourages some people from completing the form. You need to be sure the market information you gather this way genuinely translates into improved marketing, which genuinely leads to additional sales, and that those additional sales are worth more than the lost business represented by a higher abandonment rate. If you think you can prove this is the case I'd love to hear from you, because I've never seen it.

Another common cause of high abandonment rates is trying to use the form to pre-qualify leads, for example, asking questions about how much someone wants to spend, or what the person's budget is. Each pre-qualification question loses potential customers who do qualify, but who don't want to tell you this until they trust you more. Personally, I would rather have a sales person waste a few minutes phoning someone who doesn't qualify than lose a sale.

The third common cause of high abandonment rates is required fields, which are questions people have to answer or the form won't be sent. I once had a real estate company that made "How do you rate our site?" a required question. I had to ask if the company was really going to refuse to sell a house to someone just because the person wouldn't reveal what he or she thought of the site. Removing that question from the form doubled online enquiries overnight. This translated into additional sales worth 50 times the total cost of building and running the website.

Stupid or complex questions can also increase abandonment. One recruitment agency I worked with had "please describe your dream job" as a question. That's a tough question to answer if you aren't a good writer. It's also hard to know what is expected as a response -- a few words or a short novel? It's simply easier for someone to go to another site that has an easier form. In addition, the answers the agency did get weren't really used by the placement staff. The staff was more concerned with candidates' qualifications and experience.

The most effective contact forms are the ones that only ask the things you genuinely need to know in order to make contact. In most cases this is nothing more than a name and a phone number or email address.

Once you've gotten the abandonment rate down as far as you can, look at the prospect rate (the percentage of visits during which people look at the contact form). The prospect rate tells you how many people are considering contacting the company. The higher it is, the more successful your site is as a sales tool. The first thing to look at is how easy it is to get to the form. Put links to the contact form in as many places as possible, or (even better), put the contact form in as many pages as possible. After that you can branch out into general assessments of the other sales aspects of the site.

Manage your forms
Finally, and most importantly, contact forms need management. In all the cases I've cited above, management had nothing to do with the contact form process. Forms were created, processes put in place, but no one came back to see what was happening. It was assumed it would all just run smoothly. Someone in a sales management position needs to be counting form submissions and the resultant enquiries. The person needs to know what the abandonment rate is, and whether that is good or bad. If a website is designed to generate enquiries, watching and managing the contact form process is the single most important thing to do on that site. It's what generates the income.

Brandt Dainow is an independent web analytics consultant and the CEO of ThinkMetrics. Read full bio.

Chief technology catalyst

It’s the kind of job title that feels like honey on the ears. It’s got class, respect, and ends with a fun snap. It’s almost the sweet and sour chicken of job titles. This position is responsible for providing technology insights to brands and helping them utilize it as a creative tool. It's a relevant marching order in today's world and makes marketers swoon with excitement. If you're looking for some 21st century street cred mixed with a creative flare, you may just find what you’re looking for as a chief technology catalyst.

One marketer who once held this title is Lori Schwartz, managing partner at StoryTech. Here’s why this position encompasses so many important marketing aspects and strives to align technology with creativity to impact positive brand change.

Change agent/transformation coach

Anytime you can incorporate "change" or "transformation" into your job title, it's an exciting prospect. No one walks around with more Nostradamus swagger than a change agent or transformation coach. These people your guiding light to future trends and how you should adapt to an evolving landscape. They are regal creatures prancing gracefully through the agency world causing wide eyes and flushed faces. Much like the Elves in Lord of the Rings, they are to be awed -- not feared. Plus they love Lembas bread.

Aimee Reker, managing partner at FRWD speaks about why change agents are so critical in helping marketers navigate industry trends.

Marketing technologist

Well slap my face and call me Shirley. If that isnt an attractive job title then you've buttered the wrong side of your bread. This elegant position is tasked with understanding the analytics side, as well as the engagement and human aspects of marketing. It's a rare breed seldom encountered in the wild. However, there is no doubt that to be a marketing technologist is to tickle the fancy of every industry player you come across.

Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe, principal at Social Espionage explains why this position represents such a rare kind of marketer and why young professionals should aspire to achieve this title.


Boom, there it is. Why exist in our mundane universe when you can transcend to a higher dimension of esteem and respect by becoming a futurist? Futurists are like Tibetan Monks occasionally gracing us special glimpses of wisdom and knowledge. These enigmatic players are responsible for looking ahead and analyzing how trends are converging and defining the industry. Being a futurist comes with heavy responsibility and theres no room for teasing. Well, maybe a little.

Chip Gross, director of client services for AKQA talks about why he admires the "futurist" job title not only for its cosmetic appeal, but for the vital analysis that these industry players take on.

Chief enabling officer

I'll give you a moment to put your socks back on because I know they were just knocked off.

When the acronym CEO is thrown around, it's rare that people associate it with chief enabling officer. These playful chameleons are responsible for enabling a whole corporation, group, or enterprise to accomplish the innovation that will create great customer experiences. Nothing makes this position more fun that having an exciting array of people by your side. They enjoy making magic -- together.

Morely Winograd, partner at Mike and Morely, LLC explains why this job title actually represents a very fundamental but often forgotten theme of marketing: enabling is as important as executing.

Chief innovation executive

It's the kind of job title that drips off your chin like biting into a ripe mango. With this position, you are bestowed the allure of being perceived as innovative as well as a serious executive. Plus you also get to be a chief. That's cool. This job requires you to look at the landscape of new media platforms and minimalize the risk of early adoption. Everyone wants to be a trend setter, and chief innovation executives allow you to do it.

Reed Berglund, CEO at FullBottle speaks to iMedia about why this position is extremely important in this world of new media and fast evolving distribution platforms.

Brand ambassador

Slow down there, Mr. President. With all that exciting political lingo in your job title, you'll be heading to the top in no time. A brand ambassador is responsible for being an extension of the brand. If a brand is your arm, a brand ambassador is your fork, and the public is your delicious meal. Eat up and enjoy.

Shelby White, senior marketing manager for Waffle House speaks to iMedia about why she finds this title so appealing and important.

Chief/digital prophet

David Shing. Ya'll know what I'm talking about.

Chris Carlin, Sr. marketing and social media manager for Upper Deck explains his opinion on digital prophets.

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"Cropped closeup of a woman wearing red lipstick and licking her lip" image via Shutterstock.

"Macro close up of woman's mouth eating strawberry" image via Shutterstock.


  Doug Wintz is Founder and Principal of DMW MediaWorks, a consultancy specializing in digital ad operations and technology.  Since 2004, DMW MediaWorks has helped emerging companies set up their ad operations departments and...

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