Partnering With Mobile Ad Networks

Way back in 1999, when Britney was hot and I was just a young assistant planner at an online startup in San Francisco, our buying team discovered CPC (define) ad networks. It was very exciting! Flycast and ValueClick were a respite from the high CPMs (define) of and Lycos — plus we only had to pay for clicks. It was amazing. We wanted to put all of our money there.

When I plan and buy Internet ad buys nowadays, I’m leery of the networks and exchanges that aggregate inventory across hundreds of properties. There are so many behavioral networks, video networks, and ad exchanges with virtually no differentiation and only one real core offering: cheap inventory. Even the ad networks’ purported strength, direct response marketing, often doesn’t hold up on scrutiny. Customers driven by online ad networks tend to be of lower value than those from other sites. For this reason, I try to avoid buying online ad networks.

On the other hand, I’ve worked quite a bit with mobile ad networks and actually value their partnership.

Why have the mobile ad networks become almost a must buy for me? Because mobile advertising networks bring much more value to the mobile Web marketplace than their PC-based counterparts bring to the PC Internet. For one, it’s easier to reach a mass audience on the PC-based Internet than it is to find that on the mobile Web. A second-tier content site can receive millions of visitors a month and can support a significantly sized ad buy of tens of thousands of dollars. The reach offered by the major mobile ad networks often dwarfs that offered by the individual sites. On the mobile Web, however, only a handful of sites offer that kind of scale. The reach of the carrier decks — mobile providers’ home sites, which are the sole mobile Web experience for many users without high-end handsets — adds many users to the bases of those ad networks with carrier relationships.

Mobile ad networks also offer measurement that many mobile content sites can’t. The technology of serving ads across many mobile sites offers a great view of consumer usage by handset, operating system, and carrier. I find AdMob’s research reports to be an invaluable resource. Other ad networks also publish findings for general consumption. Such reports can provide insights on consumer behavior, which differs depending on their device, and I often recommend that coworkers check them out. With the ad servers largely absent from mobile Web advertising, the ad networks have filled a measurement void. If an advertiser is using mobile Web banners to drive consumers to take an action, such as download a mobile application, some of the mobile networks can measure that by site and are even willing to partner with sites outside of their network to provide this functionality. Online, virtually all the networks are blind and guard their proprietary algorithms.

That said, mobile ad networks do have their drawbacks. As these networks proliferate, it pays to be choosy. Transparency is key. Networks should be willing to share a site list so advertisers know where their ads might appear. They should also be willing to share some sense of their inventory shares so clients can understand how much they rely on certain types of sites as a source for ad space. Good ad networks will also allow advertisers to blacklist sites they don’t want to be featured on. Better ad networks will report back on where an advertiser’s ad ran. Advertisers should push for that level of transparency.

As the mobile Web grows, more content sites will offer the reach, targeting, efficiency, and measurement offered by the mobile ad networks today. But until then, the mobile networks are doing a great job. So we can buy them like it’s 1999.

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