Stacking the Deck: A Publisher’s Guide to Ad Stack Optimization

I talk to lots of publishers who are awesome at curating an audience, but struggle at maximizing the revenue per visitor or page view. It’s hard to know when your traffic threshold has increased to a point where you want to start adding zones to your site or upgrade to an ad server. Strategically growing your ad stack is one of the most important skills for increasing revenue from any site.

While all the major exchanges work with many of the same Demand Side Platforms (DSPs), each exchange brings different campaign alignments to the table. A particular DSP may be buying your inventory already, but that doesn’t guarantee you access to all of the diverse brands that DSP works with. 

By working with multiple ad networks, you essentially get multiple slices of the same advertisers’ budget. Advertisers make purchase decisions using domain, a visitor’s cookie, time stamps and referring URL. Different exchanges have different levels of cookie matching with their buyers, which impacts performance. The amount of bids, or bid density, varies between exchanges and has a big impact on overall yield. 

Size matters

The concept here is simple enough, but the execution can be tricky. Choosing the number of ad partners that will yield the most comes down to your size. For “smaller” publishers, or websites with less than 30,000 monthly pageviews, a max fill partner and one other exchange is usually a good combination. This setup enables these publishers to boost CPMs without sacrificing fill.

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For larger sites in the 1-10 million pageviews/day range, it’s more common to work with anywhere from three to five exchanges. Large ComScore 500 publishers often work with between eight to 12 different ad partners to monetize their inventory.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

So how do you decide who fits the bill? With an already saturated and continually growing landscape of ad tech companies, it’s not practical, or perhaps not even possible, to test them all. It’s best to start your search with the following criteria in mind:

  • Focus on the bookends. A great ad stack has one partner targeting your high-end CPM goal at the top and a max fill solution at the bottom. First work to figure out these two partners, and then focus on filling in the gaps in between.
  • Twenty is the golden number. Regardless of how many partners you squeeze into the mix, you want the fill rate for any given zone to stay about 20 percent. Dipping below this threshold puts you at a higher risk for discrepancies.
  • Bolster each partner’s strengths. Each exchange will perform better under different circumstances. Try to send ad calls to the network that is most likely to fill them. You may find that one partner is strong with international traffic, while another has higher yields for mobile traffic.
  • Other important considerations. Beyond performance, there are other factors that are important to the success of a partnership. Make sure you are comfortable with a potential partner’s payment terms, their publisher support, reporting capabilities and so forth.

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A Labor of Love

Finding the right mix of programmatic partners is a labor of love. It takes experimentation, clear communication of goals and a willingness to move things around. The result is a significant increase in revenue per page view and therefore leverage to apply pressure to your direct relationships. 

As you test variations of your ad stack, remember that price floors are an important element to factor in. It’s also crucial to properly manage pass-backs to avoid discrepancies between partners.

Finally, be sure to build out a solid reporting infrastructure that allows you to measure total revenue per ad request and track the success of your partners.

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