Read any online advertising industry press coverage or go to any seminar or conference and you’ll encounter a crush of advertising network representation. Whether it's a story about ad networks and their rise to prominence, or their impending fall from grace -- or whether it's a labyrinth of booths and their babes -- ad networks are everywhere.
There seems to be a new ad network founded every minute. It seems as if every time a bus goes by, another ad network is born. If Zuzu Bailey were around today, she'd be saying, "Every time a bell rings, an ad network gets its wings!"
But there seems to be an ongoing concern in the marketplace concerning advertising networks: their lack of transparency, lack of control over the reach and frequency of a schedule, the quality of placements -- not to mention that an increase in their numbers means an advertiser has a smaller chance of catching the audience they're actually after.
When too many poles drop lines in the water, the hole tends to get fished out.
The one kind of growth that could bode well for the space is the growth in vertical ad networks. While that growth is a bit slower, it is also potentially healthier.
Vertical ad networks are nothing new. The only thing really new about them is the prominence of the attention they are starting to get.
Vertical ad networks are online advertising networks that have a particular content focus. They aggregate a collection of sites together that have an affinity with one another and bring those "passion places," as I like to call them, together in a way that provides advertisers meaningful scale without the uncertainty of a vast collection of unknown and dissimilar sites.
Adify is a two-year old company that focuses on making its technology platform available for the assembling of vertical ad networks, and it was recently purchased by Cox for around $300 million. Last year, JumpStart, an automotive-focused vertical ad network, was purchased for something in the same neighborhood by Hachette-Filipacchi. DoubleClick recently announced that it was going to make its DFP product available for doing essentially what Adify now does. And GLAM Media is investing millions in creating a media company that is an assembly of vertical ad networks.
Heck, even a lot of blog ad networks can be seen as vertical ad networks.
The appeal of a vertical ad network is first and foremost its focus. If I'm a pharmaceutical or health and lifestyle advertiser, regardless of whether I know exactly which site my ads are running on, I can reach that audience if I buy on Good Health Advertising.
Or, if I’m trying to reach an audience of committed amateur athletes, regardless of not having site-specific placement knowledge, I’ll reach the desired audience by running on Sportgenic.
While general ad networks can provide the kind of massive scale that a brand wanting broad reach needs -- and while the scale can also provide a sizeable enough audience if behaviorally targeted -- vertical ad networks can give the advertiser the comfort of context as well as target.
Many advertisers, regardless of what we say about the miracle of online targeting technology, still want the tangible logic of contextual relevancy for ads. A vertical ad network goes some way toward providing this.
Now, it's true that some advertisers are still wary of having their ads run on sites that they themselves would never visit, but clients need to understand that people are finding the content they want or need in these little environments, these "passion places."
As a recent comScore Marketing Solutions survey shows, when asked where you would find trustworthy product or service information, 50 percent indicated vertical content sites. A vertical ad network is a conglomerate of those sites.
Something else to note about vertical ad networks (this is true of all online advertising): the online media impression is the only instance where it really is the case that if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, it doesn't make any noise. This is because if there is no one there to hear it, the tree doesn't actually fall. There is only an impression when there is someone to generate it. Clients who are wary that their ads are going to be somewhere no one goes to see them don't have to worry because, well, their ads won't be in an empty room because the room ceases to exist when it's empty. This is all very Schrödinger-ian, but…
Vertical ad networks are a terrific way to take advantage of the long tail of online content, develop enough scale to make it worth the time and money, and get the contextual relevancy that makes so many advertisers comfortable.
Media Strategies Editor Jim Meskauskas is vice president and director of online media for ICON International, Inc., an Omnicom Company.