How to Deal With Underdelivery

Many agency media planners have run into the problem I’m about to describe. It usually hits about a week into an online media campaign, when someone runs a campaign report and finds that a site slated to run 2 million ad views per month ends up serving 1,700 in the first week. This usually makes the planner managing the campaign break out in a cold sweat. The next step is usually an angry phone call to a sales rep.

Increasingly, from my experience, publishers seem to be overpromising on the volume of ads they can deliver. Regrettably, traffic statistics and such are poor predictors of what a site might be able to deliver, especially if you’re using advanced targeting techniques or rich media. However, you really can’t fault the sales reps in many cases. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that can contribute to an underdelivery:

  • Revenue optimizers. Any respectable publishing-side ad server knows to serve the $40 CPM ads before the $0.20 CPC ads. This feature is built into many of the popular in-house and outsourced ad serving engines. From the publisher’s perspective, this makes perfect business sense. However, from the advertiser’s perspective, you might find all that negotiating work is actually working against your expected delivery.

  • Traffic fluctuations. If you’re advertising on CNN.com right now, you’re probably meeting your buy guarantees (and then some). However, CNN’s traffic will likely return to normal once this election conundrum gets settled. My point? Often site traffic is affected by external influences that are beyond a publisher’s control. A site that delivered 80 million page views last month might not reach that goal next month.
  • Targeting filters. It is often very tough for ad sales reps to estimate available inventory if you’re using advanced targeting techniques like profile targeting. Sometimes, a weeklong test is a better indicator of what will actually be delivered than an ad server’s estimation.
  • Rich media. Depending on the format used, it’s sometimes tough for publishers to estimate how many rich media ads they can serve in a given period. This is often influenced by the types of browsers most often used on a site, the presence of certain plug-ins, the presence of Java, usage by corporations with firewalls, and many other factors.
  • Overselling. Especially now, in this lovely little crunch we’re in, sales reps are under tremendous pressure to sell whatever they can. I’m not saying that sales reps deliberately oversell (we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt), but sometimes the last thing on a rep’s mind when he or she is selling to you is whether or not a delivery goal should be cut back to a more realistic figure.

Regardless of what caused the underdelivery, it’s important to recognize when you might be in trouble and move quickly to correct the problem. Trust me, a client would rather reallocate dollars early in a campaign than take heat from his or her boss at the end of the campaign for failure to meet targeted goals.

First of all, any vendors that appear to be off-track with regard to delivery should be warned, with definite consequences for continued underperformance. Before formally warning anybody, boot up your trusty copy of Excel and project expected delivery for the length of the flight, based on what’s been delivered to date. If the site launched a day or two late, be sure to account for this in your calculations. Once you’ve developed this spreadsheet for all sites on your campaign, begin making phone calls. Let your reps know that you’re pacing for underdelivery, and you need to see it corrected immediately.

Sometimes this can prompt a reality check. You might find that some reps will tell you that they don’t think they can open the floodgates any wider. In this case, revise your insertion orders to reflect a more realistic goal.

The above scenario illustrates why it’s always important to have proposals from other publishers in the hopper. When reps call me and ask me whether they can submit a proposal for a piece of business that’s already been planned, I usually tell them that they can. You never know when one or more sites on your plan could underdeliver and leave you scrambling for options. Having proposals on deck is always a good idea.

Dealing with clients on underdelivery issues can be a little challenging. But the key is this: Always be sure the client understands that you’re dealing with the underdelivery issue proactively. You should always bring the matter to your client’s attention before it gets to be a serious problem. If you bring up an underdelivery issue with only a week left in the flight, it doesn’t give your client a wide range of choices. However, if you bring it up in the first couple of weeks, you can position yourself as the hero for steering your client around a potential pitfall. If a client asks about why an underdelivery situation couldn’t have been prevented, email him or her a copy of this column.

Always be sure to have plans for any dollars that are generated by plan revisions. Simply telling a client that you pulled $30,000 out of the XYZ.com buy because of a projected underdelivery is not enough. You must let him or her know that you have a recommendation for that money. Otherwise, you might lose that media weight and that money, especially with today’s market conditions.

Again, deal with underdelivery proactively, and you will turn a bad situation into a good one. Your client will appreciate your attention to his or her campaign, and you will avoid an unfavorable situation when your campaign ends and it’s time to do a postbuy analysis.

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