I get a lot of telephone calls and inquiries from people who want to know what I think about the trend toward consolidation in the ad network space. Since I work for a network, I guess they want to know if the prospect of fewer, bigger players in the network space is a good thing or a bad thing.
The answer I give is that the ad network space is not consolidating, it is expanding. Indeed, I can't recall a time since 1995 when new networks have emerged as rapidly as they are today. They are not just plentiful and new, they are different, springing up around audience groups and content channels as off-shoots of branded media online, which is suddenly keen to tap the veritable long tail in a qualified manner.
The trend, I argue, is going to continue over the course of the next year, and most of what has qualified in recent memory as an ad network will vanish and be replaced by a more modern version with upscale features and requirements.
For all the planners and buyers who struggled to understand the difference between ad networks over the past couple of years, the change will mean the end of sameness. For all the web publishers who strung networks together in order to extract a living, it will mean the end of anonymity. We are having something of a renaissance online and the harbinger of change is the network.
The old ad network was the run-of-network, affordable reach version. It was the people's version, because while the rich few dined out on expensive positions and fancy creative, the ad network ladled out bowls of ad banners to a steady line of pedestrian traffic. Ad networks fed the workers.
The growing affluence online, however, is creating a stronger middle class among web publishers with middle-class tastes and upper-class aspirations. Standing in line for ad banners won't do. Recognizing this, savvy business owners with an appetite for growth of their own are beginning to cater to the discriminating needs of the emerging middle class and create spaces for them with well-appointed features and benefits.
These will be the new, specialized ad networks of the future. They will be wealthier and quite brand conscious. Some of them will wear labels from AOL, Disney or MTV, while others will appear in trendy California designer networks, and others in hand-crafted quality that is available only in small, expensive batches from New England.
The new ad network will care a great deal about its community. It will want the right sort of neighbors. It will shun suburban sprawl and large developments that remind it more of where it came from than where it wants to go.
All of this is ordained by a market that needs to grow. We expect delivery on another $30 billion of advertising over the next few years, and we must make sense of it in a way that consumers will recognize. More advertising clutter and banner blight will drive the population away. Online users must see value for themselves in the outcome of $30 billion.
The online caregiver, who must reconcile the internet user to advertiser, is the web publisher. As the market continues to grow, the desire and ability among publishers to improve their condition, and that of their users, will grow with it and they will align themselves with partners that yield improving results and, ultimately, value.
The proliferation of vertical networks shows how that value is already being calculated: relevancy. Only relevancy equates to the desires of both publishers and users at the same time.
Marketers will easily recognize the advantages for them with this new network landscape. Until now, they have relied on large, inward-looking places with generic appeal for all their needs. Going forward, there will be the chance to expand, to get out of town and mix it up with the boutiques on Main Street. Think Wal-Mart versus Starbucks and you can conjure the significance of new vertical networks -- and new media.
Since the beginning, the ad network has always been a highly adaptive model online. Pop-up networks, CPA networks, behavior networks, video networks -- the ad network has supported them all. Now, would you believe, the AOL Network?
As Wenda Harris Millard, president, media, for Martha Stewart Living Omnicom, said announcing the company's entry into the network space via Martha's Corner: "As internet users become more passionately engaged with lifestyle sites, we want to enable marketers to reach consumers in a targeted, niche environment."
Ah, yes. The ad network is dead. Long live the ad network.
Jarvis Coffin is a co-founder of Burst Media. Read full bio.