The process of choosing an ad network shouldn't be taken lightly. Some tips for choosing one. Last in a series.
The process of choosing an ad network shouldn't be taken lightly. There are, by most estimates, between 200 and 400 active networks of various modes. As with any media buy, the nature and quality of the sites we advertise with and the makeup of their audiences directly affect our campaigns. And while becoming acquainted with the options that exist for us in the ad network space is essential to making our decision, there are other factors that require our deliberation.
As you conduct your preliminary research, you'll notice a trend: nearly every one touts itself as a leading ad network. While this obviously can't be the case, networks use this term differently to qualify their key attributes. One might be considered a leader in its audience reach, while another is known for the brand-name sites with which it partners.
Because of the many vertical and niche networks in the market place, it isn't inappropriate for a small player to brand itself a leader if, for example, it's among the top sports networks. Often, though, you'll find the title bandied about in relation to how a network fairs on the comScore Ad Focus Ranking.
Size and Reach
Along with individual site traffic, comScore Media Metrix routinely ranks U.S. ad networks based on their number of unique visitors and their reach. The firm calls this unique list the Ad Focus Ranking, and it can be a useful resource for media buyers.
In February, for example, the Ad Focus Ranking found the top networks in reach to include Platform-A and Advertising.com (both part of AOL), the Yahoo Network, the Google Ad Network, and Specific Media. The top 20 included such names as ValueClick Networks, Casale Media Network, DRIVEpm, Collective Media, and 24/7 Real Media. Of particular interest to marketers should be the ability to observe how the pecking order changes from report to report. Some networks gain ground while others sink to lower positions, offering buyers some indication of their current level of success (keep abreast of online ad news, though, as industry consolidation also contributes to these kinds of shifts).
In such cases where a network's sites comprise branded and established properties, inquiring about its site selection process probably isn't necessary. If you're thinking of working with a blind network or one that aggregates inventory across hundreds of lesser-known properties, it's a must. Being on the publisher side at one time and having applied to several networks for ad sales services, I was surprised by the leniency with which some networks approach a potential new partner and moneymaker -- particularly when I've heard them broadcast their high standards to buyers in the past.
To avoid tying your campaign to a network with questionable sites (if not in terms of content value then audience traffic), ask to see their publisher application form and a list of the five most recent sites they've signed. This isn't an area within which one can afford to take chances on a host of up-and-coming properties.
Increasingly, even those networks that don't specialize in something like behavioral technology are able to offer a stout blend of targeting options. Inquire about each network's abilities to successfully reach your target audience through segmentation, search, contextual, and content advertising. Some recommend broad ad delivery initially and narrow it down over time; if this is what they're pushing and you have other ideas, you'll want to know up front.
Something else to address when selecting a network is the level of customer service you can expect to receive once you've signed on as a client. Many a campaign has been won (and more so, retained) by the smaller network that's big on effectively servicing its customer base.
It's difficult to gauge what you'll get prior to actually launching your campaign, but a thorough vetting process can certainly help. Ask the networks on your short list how much engagement you can expect when it comes to developing your site plan and monitoring your campaign, and keep a close watch on how quickly they get back to you, regardless of your question's urgency. Their degree of involvement in your campaign and level of responsiveness to your agency can literally make or break your buy.
In many ways, working with an ad network can be compared to driving a car after months of driver's education. Once you've done it and applied your knowledge in a practical fashion, you have a far greater understanding of the logistics involved and will grow more adept at navigating the road. As you venture into new territory, keep your wits about you and don't lose track of your final destination. This is one vehicle that can get you exactly where you want to go.
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Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.
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