Thursday, November 15, 2007

Keys to differentiating ad networks

What can an ad network do to make itself stand out in a sea of undifferentiated companies? Underscore Marketing's president has some ideas.

Almost every time I have gathered together with my buy-side industry buddies in the past few years, I've heard the same complaint. There are new ad networks launching seemingly every day, but none of them seems like its own animal. Many of them have "proprietary" targeting, ad management, rich media and reporting technologies that everybody else seems to possess, too. Their names are even beginning to run together.

Lack of differentiation among networks is a common gripe. It's so common that I've been hearing reps from networks acknowledge openly in meetings that they need to position themselves differently with respect to their competitors, and they wonder aloud how they might do it.

I have some suggestions.

  • Guarantee placement: Running an advertiser out of network or in places the advertiser's brand specifically forbids is a common (and underhanded) tactic. Even if your network never does this, plenty of other networks do. They get caught often. The result is usually a blacklisting. Over the years, so many war stories have been traded back and forth about nightmarish placements that almost every network has been tarred with the same brush in this regard. So why not guarantee placement? If an advertiser runs outside a pre-approved list of sites or placements, they get the month's flight free.
  • Show what a media buyer can't get when he leaves your network off a buy: Highlighting inventory or unique reach that's accessible only through a buy with your network makes sense. If you have exclusive relationships with sites, buyers need to know that. If you have unique reach against a specific demographic, interest or behavior that media buyers are trying to target, they need to know that. It counts for a lot when buyers are sitting in front of their comScore interface trying to find ways to extend unique reach. I haven't seen too many networks successfully advertise this, although ValueClick recently demonstrated its unique reach versus other networks in an article and the details managed to lodge themselves in my brain.
  • Show off your optimization chops: Countless networks claim to be experts at optimization, or to have proprietary auto-optimization black boxes. Well, show me -- don't tell me! Pick a metric, then run some control impressions that are representative of the buy sans optimization. Then do your stuff and show me the difference between what I get when you optimize buys versus what I might get if I let the buy run without optimizing.
  • Lift the curtain on behavioral targeting: Simply saying you're able to target by behavior isn't enough. Buyers are smart enough to know that the more data you have and the more data points you're able to take into consideration, the better targeted the ads are going to be. Give me a one-sheeter that shows me all of the data points and variables I can use to target ads. Not only will it show how you compare to other networks, but it might give me an idea for a campaign.

I see a lot of presentations and sit in on a lot of meetings with ad networks. By and large, they seem to be telling me things as opposed to showing them to me. I think that if networks put their money where their mouths are, they would be able to get a lot more traction behind the notion of separating themselves from their competitors.

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