The State of Ad Network Transparency

Though there are several shades of definition, ad network transparency is a network’s disclosure of the sites it represents. Ad networks are increasingly claiming transparency. Some even use transparency as a value proposition cornerstone. Why is this occurring, what do the ad networks have to say on the topic of transparency, and how might this affect media strategy?

Why Transparency Now?

A number of factors are contributing to the shift to ad network transparency. There’s pressure from large advertisers. Several suffered black eyes when anti-spyware investigations earlier this year revealed brand-name ads placed on inappropriate sites or adjacent to inappropriate content. Some viewed that lack of transparency as a liability. Ad network nondisclosure was painted as nefarious and disreputable. No company wants to be associated with these types of descriptions, particularly in this easily manipulated Web 2.0 era of the reputation economy.

Media buyer awareness and education plays a part in the shift. The media buyer views transparency as another campaign aspect she can control, which then causes her to seek it out. This, in turn, creates more demand. If the network wants the sale, it must offer transparency to remain competitive.

Competitive forces are also an influence, especially after media monster Google announced transparency in performance metrics reporting. These days, everyone’s trying to catch up with Google.

Ad Network Claims

Pose the transparency question to an ad network now and you’re almost certain to get an affirmative answer — with a few exceptions. Probe a little further, however, and you’ll see not all their answers are the same.

Some networks, like Interclick, and contextual networks, like Google’s Content Network, Google’s content network, AdBrite, and Quigo, take an absolute stance on transparency. Others, like Tribal Fusion, Tacoda, and Collective Media, emphasize the quality content of their network and assert transparency, but there seem to be some gray areas. These networks may conceal a small number of publishers, only disclose their list of sites upon request, or provide limited reporting. Still others, such as Burst Media, offer both. Burst Media’s Burst Direct is a blind network, while the Burst Network is transparent.

The most noticeable shift comes from such ad networks as Advertising.com and ValueClick Media. In times past, they wore their blind network status with pride. Now they’re trying to spin transparency into their capabilities. They talk about the importance or degree of transparency being related to the kind of advertiser and the campaign objective, with brand advertisers more concerned about transparency than those seeking direct response objectives. For direct response advertisers, these networks claim, it’s about reach, efficiency, and volume, and that advertisers must entrust trafficking decisions to the network to ensure performance and quality metrics are achieved.

What’s a media buyer to believe?

Transparency in Strategy

If transparency is important to the ad strategy, the media buyer must do her homework. It’s not good enough to take a network’s word on its transparency. Ask how that network defines its transparency: To what degree is the network transparent? If there are any blind sites, how might they wind up (or not) in a transparent buy? How much can the buyer control where her ads might be placed, and how does optimization occur within the transparent buy? Does reporting drill down to the site-specific level?

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Such reporting can inform a campaign. If smaller but highly targeted long-tail sites prove to drive campaign response, the buyer can seek out similar sites, all of which may be at potentially lower CPMs (define) than a broad network buy. Such responses can also help inform alternatively targeted campaigns such as behavioral or contextual.

Transparency also prevents the buyer from duplicating a buy across the same property through two different networks. This could be viewed as good for the ad networks as it opens a door to more than one network.

Is transparency all about buying smarter, protecting the brand, and having a better understanding of what works or doesn’t for your client? I’d love to hear your opinion.

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