An Excess Inventory Auction Place

Despite the occasional frantic grab for in-demand placements months in advance, there’s certainly no shortage of online ad inventory. Even though most publishers reject the earlier trend of shoring up placement opportunities for fear of ad clutter, they frequently find themselves with an inventory surplus on their hands. Some look to media resellers, such as ad networks, to help them unload banners and buttons. Others fill the space with house ads, as offline publishers do.

In the U.K., a third option exists. Appropriately, it’s called Blankspace.co.uk.

Blankspace came to fruition earlier this year when U.K. design and marketing company 2UpFront Ltd. started to tinker with the idea of an auction-based site for buying and selling media inventory. The original plan was to work with print media, but the company quickly found conventional publishers were, well… conventional. Instead of dealing with publishers who were unwilling to negotiate outside of their rate comfort zone, the company looked to online media, which it knew to be more dynamic in terms of rates. The result was the Web-based equivalent of a business lunch over which publishers and advertisers could make connections, negotiate deals, and swap ad dollars.

“It has a community feel to it,” says Nick York, managing director of Blankspace. “Currently, we have mostly small sites that don’t have many sales people. They don’t have the mechanism in place to sell their inventory and can’t get the same value for it as they can through Blankspace.”

The Blankspace site is split into two sections: Sellspace for media owners and Buyspace for businesses. The sections feature media subcategories that include old standards, such as Arts and Entertainment and Fashion, Style and Beauty, and niche categories, such as Motoring and Motorcycles, and Bridal and Weddings. As with archetypal auction site eBay, site users must first register before participating in an auction.

Site publishers can post inventory for auction within one of the categories. They must give basic site information, such as type of property, number of unique visitors and page impressions, and position of available inventory. Media buyers peruse available inventory by category and access the information provided by the publishers, including number of available banner impressions and ad rates. They can learn more about the seller by viewing feedback and ratings left by other media purchasers or by establishing contact via email before placing a bid.

According to York, there are really no parameters with regard to the type of sites Blankspace will accept. “They’re hugely diverse in terms of traffic and style,” he says. It’s up to the publishers to determine what they want to sell, whether it’s future ownership of their most popular placements or currently available inventory.

One benefit of an auction-based media selling model for sellers and buyers alike, York says, is it attaches greater value to niche sites and inventory that may not otherwise be appreciated. Far too often, buyers focus on the most prominent and favored placements a site has to offer, overlooking those that may deliver a more attentive and reactive audience. Given an opportunity to view those secondary placements as showcased inventory and to negotiate a desirable rate online, buyers can be introduced to valuable, cost-effective new opportunities.

As a brand-new property, Blankspace is still working to attract users through word of mouth and marketing campaigns. Participants are primarily based in the U.K. at present. York is quick to point out there are no boundaries in terms of the sites and countries that can get involved. North American buyers eager to snap up overseas inventory can participate at will, but if you’re looking for placements on our side of the virtual pond, you’ll have to wait until U.S. publishers pick up on Blankspace.

Whether U.S. buyers choose to get involved, even once the inventory is available, remains to be seen. Some marketers, including those who have experimented with Blankspace, are quick to point out online media buyers are most apt to patronize sellers with whom they have existing personal relationships as opposed to buying from unfamiliar sources.

My prediction is buyers will be more than willing to bid for inventory, remnant or otherwise. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any aversion to the auction-based paid search model. After all, doesn’t everybody love a good bargain?

Meet Tessa at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 5-8, 2005.

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