A Guide to Digital Advertising: Making Sense of the Ad Networks, Management Tools, and Ad-Serving Solutions

Article ImageIf you're considering adding online display advertising to your media mix, your first impressions may be one of confusing three-letter acronyms and an overwhelming number of vendors and technologies. So how do you make sense of this complex market and identify the right approach for your marketing goals?

First of all, consider your brand, your audience, and your key performance indicators. How important is it to have your brand appear only on the highest-quality publisher sites? How does audience targeting come into play for you? Are you trying to reach a specific demographic, or are behaviors and interests more important? And finally, how will you measure success: purchases, sign-ups/leads, or classic branding metrics such as awareness and purchase intent?

What Are Ad Networks and Exchanges?

Ad networks bring massive scale to your display ad campaigns, aggregating inventory across thousands of sites. They also frequently sell "remnant" inventory from premium/content publishers and portals. Ad networks also offer ways to target your ads across a combination of sites-by audience, behavior, site content, geography, and more. Another useful feature of ad networks is retargeting, which is a way to target users who have seen your ad or been to your website, but haven't completed a desired action.

Ad networks also offer different ways to pay for ads: per impression, per click, and sometimes per action.

Exchanges take the ad network model a step further by creating a marketplace of buyers and sellers in an auctionlike environment where ad impressions can be efficiently traded. What this means for brands is that you can also bid on inventory in real time (called RTB, for real-time bidding), similar to what you may have experienced with paid search advertising.

There seems to be an almost endless number of ad networks and exchanges to choose from, and on first glance, many seem to have very similar offerings. Beyond the basics such as pricing, the following criteria can help you determine the best fit for your campaign goals.

Transparency-Does the network let you choose where your ads will be running, or do they operate as a blind network-meaning your ad can appear in any placement across the network's thousands of sites? This distinction is most important for a brand that wants control over the context in which its ad appears. Conversely, if you have a clear way to monetize your advertising on the back end, performance tends to be more important than context.

Targeting-How can the network or exchange help you reach your audience at the best price? Highly targeted audiences on niche sites can be pricey. But you don't want to expand your reach so far that you waste precious budget dollars on people outside your target. Also important to understand is how audience segments are developed and defined-for example, which third-party data sources are used? Are predictive models leveraged to create audience segments unique to that network?

Reporting and Analytics-Beyond measuring standard delivery and performance of your campaign, can the network deliver new insights into your audience, its behaviors, buying propensity, and more?

What is a DSP?

The latest iteration of display advertising buying comes in the form of a DSP, which stands for demand-side platform. DSPs are used by brands and ad agencies to buy ad impressions at an optimal price across exchanges, networks, and more via a single interface. The key difference is that these platforms are algorithmically driven to enable optimized bidding based on performance data. In addition to paying for the ad placement, a DSP charges a fee for use of its platform, and sometimes it offers managed services in which it handles the buying and bidding for you.

Many advertisers use DSPs the same way they work with ad networks-by placing orders for campaigns with the DSPs' sales reps. However, some choose to have more control over their media buying and will use the DSPs' interfaces to manage and optimize campaigns directly. In this case, your first consideration should be whether you have the right skill sets on your team. Beyond that, look for features such as these:

  • Workflow management
  • Budgeting
  • Targeting
  • Frequency capping
  • Data integrations (from your own internal sources or third-party providers)

How Do Ad Servers Fit Into the Mix?

Regardless of the way you decide to buy your display ad placements, you'll probably want to use an ad server. Ad servers allow you to distribute and manage your campaigns across your entire media buy. For example, you can update your creative across hundreds of publishers with an ad server, and it provides centralized reporting on impressions served, clicks, conversions, creative performance, etc., across every ad placement.

An ad server also performs a critical audit function-a third-party check and balance on delivery of its campaign, which comes in handy at billing time.
As you evaluate ad-serving solutions, keep in mind that the industry has been commoditized, with standard features such as basic serving of creative, trafficking workflow, tracking, and attribution available from almost every provider at a low cost per thousand. If you need more than the basics, look for more advanced capabilities:

  • Tag management
  • Attribution modeling
  • Landing page optimization tools
  • Integration with website analytics

Ad Networks

24/7 Media
Advertising.com (AOL)
AT&T AdWorks
Burst Media
Microsoft Media Network
Rocket Fuel
Specific Media
Tribal Fusion (Exponential, Inc.)
Vibrant Media

Ad Exchanges

DoubleClick (Google)
Facebook Exchange
Right Media
Invite Media (Google)

Ad Servers

Atlas (Microsoft)
DoubleClick (Google)