It's a jungle out there, if you pardon the expression. Ad networks are a dime a dozen, and with online advertising dollars heading south quicker than the Icelandic stock market, it's becoming increasingly difficult for new ad networks to break into the online landscape and get attention from top-flight media buyers.
"There are so many ad networks out there, it's almost a joke that they all look, and sound, and smell the same," Jocelyn Griffing, senior VP and director of online marketing at ICON International, says. Yet, despite the crowded marketplace, ad networks have become an indispensable part of any online advertising strategy over the last decade. They provide media buyers with an efficient and cheap way of reaching a huge audience, whether for brand building or customer acquisition.
So with the buyers and the demand out there, ad networks are necessary -- for now. But how does an ad network break through all the noise? And what virtues stand out in the minds of media buyers?
I spoke with a few top media buyers about their impressions of the ad network market, and shockingly, they all had very particular ideas how fledgling ad networks (as well as giant ones) could get their attention.
For Greg March, there's an odd task at hand. As media director at Weiden + Kennedy, he's responsible for getting the word out about a number of television shows hitting the airwaves. Traditionally, a big TV show like "CSI" doesn't require much in the way of innovative advertising to get people to watch. It's flippin' "CSI." It's straightforward. But some less conventional shows require a little bit more of a push. For example, "Arrested Development" and "Firefly," two recent critical hits but audience flops, require a little more thought.
"I have a robust strategy that covers a broad base of things, but I happen to carve off a piece of my budget that is about trying to stimulate talk," March says. A number of ad networks offer behavioral advertising, but that wasn't what March was looking for. "Those ad networks say, 'Well, if you've visited this site, then you are an entertainment person.' But I say, 'I don't care what websites you visit. I care about what you write about.'"
In other words, March wants to connect with the people who drive word-of-mouth on the internet. By doing so, he may be able to give the online buzz machine a shove in the right direction -- meaning in favor of his clients' shows.
March hammered out a strategy with Lotame Solutions to find these online influencers. A social ad network that allows brands to locate, target, and connect with influencers in any particular market, Lotame is pretty new -- but its technology is just what March was seeking.
"They can actually see what users write about in blogs and what they leave in comment sections, and then they can create clusters of people," March says. "So what they effectively sell me is people that talk about entertainment."
These were clusters of people, and data, that nobody else had -- and something March couldn't duplicate by himself. "[Lotame] recognizes the biggest value they have is data, and they try and get different kinds of data than other folks," he says.
Even Lotame's lack of transparency doesn't bother March that much, so long as the network delivers on what it promises.
"If you're someone who blogs once a week about television, and I've got a television show and I can hit you with an over-heavy amount of frequency, that in and of itself is a win," March says.
This all points to March's overarching rule of thumb as to how ad networks can garner his attention: "Be unique. There are 350 of you guys. Ninety-nine percent of what you do is identical, so figure out what you do differently, explain to me why I can't do it myself, and convince me that it's valuable."
Short Tail Media
At ICON International, Griffing's phone rings 100 times a day. Most of the time, she doesn't take the call -- probably because she doesn't know the person calling -- and simply passes whomever it is off to her team. There's also a three-week wait just to get on her lunch schedule.
But when Jason Krebs, head of Short Tail Media, called her, Griffing picked up and took the lunch. Why? She had known Krebs for a long time, and a mutual trust had already been established. The need to establish such relationships is one of the biggest barriers for a new ad network when it comes to getting Griffing's business.
"The reason that ad networks are so desperate to hire 'old-timers' in the industry," Griffing says, "is because it's those people that have the relationships, and it's the relationships that make me give someone a chance."
It's not like Short Tail had nothing original to offer beyond that. On the contrary, Krebs' crew had created a new model for buying premium online advertising space. Short Tail Media sells only elite, top-tier publishers -- think Disney, ESPN, Better Homes and Gardens. And it sells that ad inventory -- totally transparently -- as package deals to media buyers who might otherwise have a hard time getting in the door with those big publishers. (Short Tail Media wouldn't even call itself an ad network -- but to many media buyers, that's just semantics.)
"Short Tail's value proposition is not that they're going to sell it to you cheaper than ESPN could sell it," Griffing says. "Short Tail's value proposition is, 'I'm the one who's going to deal with ESPN, I'm the one who's going to deal with the seven others sites that you're going to want to buy that are in my network, and all you have to do is make one phone call and I'll have a plan for you tonight for those seven or eight sites, exactly to spec, with exactly what you want.'"
That kind of tidy turn-key solution is appealing to Griffing, especially because it means she isn't in the office working the phones at 11 p.m. at night, which frees her up to do the rest of her job. "My boss would love me to spend more time on strategy and client development and management," she says. Short Tail gives her that freedom.
It also helps to remember that Short Tail is still independently operated. "There's still a lot of founder control, and that's something that really instills a lot of faith and confidence in media buyers," Griffing says.
Although Short Tail works for her, Griffing knows this transparent, elite-publisher-only model makes some media buyers nervous -- particularly those who aren't used to giving up so much work to an ad network. And as much as she likes Krebs and Short Tail Media, she notes, "They've got their work cut out for them, make no mistake."
Sean Cheyney has trust issues. No, it's nothing psychological. He's just being smart. As vice president of marketing and business development at AccuQuote, he's been in the online ad market a while now. And he has a number of problems with its current state.
"Most networks are full of site inventory that would be considered garbage in many vertical categories. For example, I'm not going to advertise life insurance on the Britney Spears fan websites," Cheyney says. He bemoans a "lack of post-buy transparency," and doesn't believe "most [ad networks] are really optimizing on the back end for our benefit."
Cheyney's clearly not comfortable with the traditional "black-box" model of ad networks, so when he does find a network that is transparent and does its job right, it makes him happy. It enables him to trust again. In this respect, Collective Media, one of the bigger ad networks out there, fits the bill for AccuQuote's customer acquisition needs.
"Collective Media did a fairly good job being flexible with the post-buy transparency and tracking URL appending that we needed," Cheyney says. "They were flexible, and they talked in terms of optimizing our ROI. They also gave us their site list so that we could eliminate the sites that weren't going to be a fit for us."
Collective Media's up-front transparency meant a lot to Cheyney, and he happily eliminated all the aforementioned "garbage." But the openness wasn't just during the pitch. Post-buy, he got the numbers he needed from individual publishers. This enabled him to ensure performance was up to par. And when things weren't going right with a particular site, he called on Collective Media to eliminate it.
"They were friendly, flexible, and responsive," Cheyney says of Collective Media. Faint praise maybe, but in essence, those are words to live by. In short, if an ad network wants Cheyney's business, he offers this advice: "Truly differentiate yourself with something that will be useful for me, as opposed to a shiny object."
Good Health Advertising
Transparency, of course, isn't always completely necessary. Sometimes an ad network can be targeted enough so that it doesn't need to be transparent. Good Health Advertising, a vertical network with a focus on the health care industry, succeeds for media buyers like Jocelyn Griffing because of its unique approach.
"One of my theories about the health space is that health actually touches every single part of your life -- your financial health, your emotional health, your relationship health -- so I think health has a large tie-in and impact in every other part of your life," Griffing says. The difference with Good Health, she adds, is it does "a really good job of finding sites that aren't just obvious, they're not just WebMD-esque."
In short, if Griffing's trying to market a diabetes treatment, Good Health delivers a deep swath of ad inventory, including "anything that touches diabetes or the cause for diabetes or living with diabetes. And that's a pretty long tail right there. It's not just, 'I have diabetes so I want to go to diabetes.com.' There's also preventative, health, and wellness.
"I think Good Health has done a good job being a little softer and holistic about reaching health and wellness people in a variety of different ways that it touches their life," Griffing adds. "They're providing a service to me, more so than getting me something I wasn't aware of. I may not be aware of XYZ.com that focuses on diets -- I've never heard of them before because they're a tiny little site -- but Good Health Advertising has them in their network."
Griffing notes that Good Health isn't quite as transparent as other networks, due to the unique nature of its value proposition. But she says she can live with that.
"It's a little less important where I am, as long as I'm aware that it's an approved site in their network, which means they've done the legwork to make sure the content is squeaky clean," she says. "As long as it's on target and I know that they're hitting my demo, that's what matters."
Blaise Nutter is a freelance writer. Although not quoted in this article, he would like to thank Tom Hespos, president of Underscore Marketing, and Matt Hinson, director of innovation and eStrategy at Mullen, for their assistance with this article.
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