An interesting way to identify the success of our industry is to gauge it based on the amount of ad networks in the marketplace. We saw an uprise in the late 1990s before they disappeared with the bubble, and now with the renaissance of online advertising, we are seeing the largest number ever. From large networks to demographic- and content-targeted networks, along with the successful emergence of the behavioral targeted networks, our industry is facing an ad network increase like never before.
Now with all these options, marketing agency professionals like myself are trying to distinguish between the numerous networks to find the best opportunities to reach our target audiences.
With this in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a guide that will help clarify the differences between networks, going beyond the traditional questions about reach and demographics.
The first thing to look at is whether your ad network is truly an ad network. Many do not realize that there are different types of site representation that do not truly make up a network. Make sure to ask your sales representative if you are working with an ad representative for specific sales, a remnant inventory seller or a true ad network. Identifying the type of representation you have will help you decide if you should buy inventory through a representative, directly with the site, or not at all.
We all understand the different compensation structures available to online media, such as CPM, CPC or CPA; however, it is surprising that many media buyers assume these options are not available. Make sure you ask about the different levels of compensation to find the one that fits your campaign.
3.) Ad unit offerings
In addition to compensation, another important piece to consider is the characteristics of your ad units. Make sure to check the sizes of your ad units and the levels of rich media that are available. Some ad networks work with rich media companies to bring expandable banners and integrated video banners, while others do not, so be certain that your ad network can give you the level of exposure you are looking for.
4.) Targeting capabilities
Another essential component relates to the targeting of your ads. Different ad networks have different capabilities, so ensure that they can perform behavioral, demographic, geo- and re-targeting, among the many other options of targeting techniques.
A big point of analysis (which affects your comfort level with your ad network) is the level of transparency offered. Check if your ad network discloses, pre-buy or post-buy, which websites your ad campaigns will run on. Within this process, you should also find out if the ad network lets you select which sites your ads can run on or if you choose among specific categories. Sometimes you are unable to choose at all, and the network says that its optimization structure will take care of targeting.
My personal preference is to engage in the fullest transparency possible, but you need to find your own level of comfort when making the decision about the level of disclosure.
This leads me to the process of optimization. Ad networks were the actual pioneers of an automated optimization process based on clickthrough rates and cost-per-acquisition; however, you as a planner should find out if you want to have a more controlled optimization effort.
In this case, make sure your ad network provides you with a disclosure of its optimization efforts, including where it added or deleted publishers from your campaign. An interesting phenomenon that many people in the industry are not aware of is that some publishers make their inventory available to multiple ad networks, and many times do not offer it exclusively to a single one. Therefore, an important question to ask is how much aggregated ad inventory availability per publisher can be accessed by your campaign. The higher the number, the better it is to optimize and expand your campaign, if needed.
Another component that is not widely known is that some ad networks actually get a large bulk of ad space by purchasing remnant inventory from leading portals. This is often an unknown fact, so it is important to ask whether it makes sense for you to purchase on an ad network, or if you should buy directly from the website portal. A good way to answer these questions is to check the percentage of the portal representation within your campaign, if you are truly interested in targeting the long tail.
One hot topic that is oftentimes on the minds of advertisers is the level of cookie setting and tracking technology. Remember that a consumer often associates your brand with the website that your ad is placed on, and if your ad network does not comply with standard cookie tracking policies, this could cause potential problems.
8.) Content matching
We have all been caught in an ad network buy where our client sees an ad on a website with doubtful content. Over the years, ad networks have become more responsive to providing the tools that give you the power to disassociate your brand from certain websites or content. Make sure that you check on these capabilities to afford the best placement for your ads.
As re-targeting of consumers has become a very prevalent technique, many have learned that ad networks are a great place to do this. Each network has different capabilities and minimum buy requirements. Check on those capabilities to ensure that your re-targeting effort encompasses visitors to your site from all media campaigns, including search and other banner placements.
Take a look at the level of reporting, which is quite different between networks. Some are web-based and some include sophisticated web analytics, so make sure to ask and establish your minimum reporting needs.
Additionally, check the qualification standards for publications to become part of a network, as well as the length of time they have been part of it and the criteria for joining.
Finally, make sure you check contracts and insertion orders for elements, cancellations, payment plans and indemnification clauses. I promise you will find a significant difference between one ad network and another.
With this information in mind, I hope you have the tools to look a little bit deeper into all the available ad networks. This is obviously not a full list, but should give you a good starting point on deciding which type of network you want to use, beyond the standard planning and buying questions. From an agency standpoint, I strongly believe that through an in-depth evaluation, our industry can develop a more transparent approach to ad networks. This will ultimately help marketers embrace ad networks to the fullest, in a world where ad inventory is sometimes hard to come by.