Most of us in ad operations are used to creating "work arounds" as a means of solving our most pressing problems. We are frequently handicapped by applications that are limited in their flexibility. We tend to adopt the attitude that "this is the hand we've been dealt, so let's try to make the best out of what we've got."
In actuality, we should be defining exactly what we need in order to run our business more effectively and demand that our company support us in creating those solutions.
Nowhere does this dilemma apply more than to the challenge of inventory management. Ad servers offer a basic level of inventory forecasting, but they fail at creating solutions that are publisher specific. You may be a news, travel, weather or automotive site, and in each case the challenges associated with granular targeting of inventory, of spikes in activity that can't be accounted for by ad servers or of calculating revenue share with affiliates call for spreadsheets and manual labor to create marginal solutions.
However, publishers can cast off the shackles of ad server dependency by creating their own inventory tools to address their specific needs. Using the ad server API, publishers can write custom programs that automate many of the most arduous tasks of inventory management.
Ad server API's (application programming interfaces) are essentially gateways to the inner workings of the ad server. By using the API, you can access delivery data, campaign data, advertiser data, forecasting algorithms, specific targeting as defined by key values, etc. You can use the API to create middleware applications that may utilize a language like Java to extract the inventory data and deposit it into a database. The same application can also utilize a language like PERL to take that data and format it visually into the type of reports you need and deliver it to the ad operations group on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
Below is a schematic which offers a top-line view of the interaction between the ad server and the middleware application that creates the reports:
What kind of reports can you create using this method? Just about any type of inventory report as long as the data is in the ad server. From there, it's simply a matter of defining how you want to manipulate it. Here are some examples, all of which are currently in use by publishers.
Daily inventory snapshots
What cross section of inventory availability means the most to you on a daily basis? The "snapshot" approach compiles a customized matrix of the ad sizes, site placements and key values (think DMA, product attributes, etc) and deposits them on the desktop of the ad operations group. Based on the specifications of the publisher, the list of matching, booked and available impressions can be displayed over weeks, months, even a year. Seasonal trends can be accommodated by allowing the publisher to configure a table that takes into account adjustments due to specific events, traffic patterns or new site launches.
Automated query tool
Pulling inventory avails can be like pulling teeth, particularly for campaigns with multiple line items. Instead of working around this issue, why not create an in-house solution? A simple user interface can be constructed and used to query the ad server database, compiling a multi-line avails report. Further, the results of those queries could be emailed to users on completion, stored in a database so historical trends can be analyzed and re-used as a template for future availability pulls.
Revenue share reports
One of the most manual of tasks for publishers who have a network of affiliates is calculating revenue share. This is further complicated by the fact that revenue share can vary by affiliate, product and category of advertiser. If publishers apply the discipline of entering CPMs into the ad server, using the same methodology of accessing the API can yield a customized report that matches a table of revenue share percentages with the delivered campaigns by affiliate.
Gain control of your inventory
One of my musician friends uses the malapropism "What's holding up the delay?" to describe the frustration of waiting for an event that never seems to take place. So I would ask publishers the same question. Why wait to take control of your inventory into your own hands? Most ad servers have an API, the data is there and waiting to be spun to your specifications. All it takes is the willingness to go from blind acceptance of your current limitations to creative problem solving on your own terms.