Networks: Know Before You Go

If the email I receive is any indication, media buyers and advertisers planning ad campaigns are trying to figure out which ad network to work with. They know that choosing the right partner is pivotal to the success of their campaigns, and they’re looking for the best network for their needs. Every media buyer wants that legendary combination of high quality, readily available (and affordable) inventory, qualified traffic, flawless tracking technology, and reliable service. Not too tall of an order, now is it?

Making such recommendations is difficult, of course, since each experience with each individual ad network is going to vary based on the advertiser’s campaign objectives, target market, creative message, and so on. There are no guarantees a network will perform as well for one advertiser as it did for another. But gaining a thorough understanding of what each of them has to offer can help get you through the intricate process of working with ad networks.

No matter how many times I make a media buy with an ad network instead of going directly to an independent site, the differences between the two experiences never cease to astound me. There are so many additional factors to consider when making a network buy.

Just envision this scenario: You’ve got a campaign to plan and know your target audience inside out. You research this audience’s online habits, research the sites that cater to its interests and needs, and research the effectiveness of the various placements and ad formats offered. By the time you make the buys, you’re comfortable in your knowledge and understanding of the sites and placements to which you’ve entrusted your client’s goals. There’s no doubt in your mind you’ve made the right choices.

Now consider the same scenario, only with a twist. Instead of vigilantly handpicking the sites for your campaign, you go to an ad network. You may describe your target audience and outline your objectives, but, more likely, you choose a prefabricated demographic profile from a short and rather indistinct list of alternatives. Once your needs have been sketched out, you sit back while your network rep tries to locate suitable sites and placements from among the properties he represents.

Some days later, you receive a proposal outlining where, how, and when you should be showing your ads. Having the best of intentions, you request a list of the sites the network is recommending. But unlike the routine you follow with the independent sites, you don’t thoroughly review every site to determine whether the content is appropriate — after all, there are probably dozens of them and, as usual, you’re pressed for time. You may not even review the recommended placements or request statistics on their effectiveness, since this task would have to be carried out for each site on your lengthy list. Instead, you put your faith in your network sales rep as an expert about the sites his network represents.

It may occur to you that this second scenario paints the picture of a somewhat lackadaisical media buyer. In actuality, even the most diligent of advertising professionals can fall victim to this hazardous routine. When you’re working within a strict budget or planning a campaign on a massive scale and need a substantial volume of inventory through which to deliver your message, working with an ad network does make sense. But in the world of media planning and buying, time is a luxury we can’t always afford, and having to take the word of a network rep on the quality and suitability of sites and placements is often a buyer’s inevitable fate.

This is precisely why it’s so important to choose the right ad network for your campaign. You may not be able to give your placements the attention they deserve prior to making the buy, but knowing the ad networks available to you and thoroughly understanding what each can offer will put you at a major advantage.

The next time you have a few spare hours, try this assignment: Review each ad network you’ve worked with, listing their strengths and weaknesses (which one has the best selection of newspaper sites, an effective text link inventory, the best rates on pop-ups, etc.). Request case studies to get an idea of what other advertisers have experienced. Research the networks you’re still unfamiliar with, and start building relationships with new contacts there. By arming yourself with a basic knowledge of the major ad networks now, you’ll be prepared the next time you need to locate the perfect advertising partner for your campaign. You can still take the advice of your sales rep… but wouldn’t you rather avoid flying blind?

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