Online Ad Networks - The advertising network shopping list

What should agencies and advertisers look for in a network? Should they go for specialists, expansive reach, or those with bespoke technologies? Adam Woods checks out the numerous options available

Model campaign: ValueClick Media worked with 20th Century Fox on the successful online campaign around the release of the feature film Alvin and the Chipmunks
Model campaign: ValueClick Media worked with 20th Century Fox on the successful online campaign around the release of the feature film Alvin and the Chipmunks

It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of an online ad campaign is more or less sealed the moment the agency chooses which network to use. And in a busy market, the choice is not getting any more straight forward.

Richard Sharp, UK managing director of ValueClick Media, says: The big challenge for planner/buyers is that there are so many networks all claiming to be the greatest thing in the world, and that makes differentiation very difficult.

This is all the more true because the market is increasingly commoditised, and with budgets tight and networks apparently hard to separate, price is often the deciding factor. But, according to Sharp, wise agencies need to look beyond simple cost. If the price is too good to be true, then it’s not true, he says.

Site-repping networks, which maintain small stables of premium publishers, are likely to charge for the quality and precision of their sites. Niche networks specialising in particular verticals may do likewise.

Each has its devotees, as do the larger, broad-reach networks, which offer solutions for most types of campaign, and claim – perhaps fairly – to offer the best value for money. Portals such as Microsoft and Yahoo are pushing their own networks hard, while specialist players claim there is more to a successful network than these big online brands appreciate.

Best of both worlds
Large, established networks understandably suggest you go for a large, established network. Size, by fairly common consent, is certainly an important asset in the world of ad networks, although scale alone won’t get you far.

The tools are as important as size, says Mark Rabe, Yahoo’s vice-president and managing director for UK sales. You can’t win without both, but it is increasingly expensive for networks to stay small and niche and independent, because of the investment you have to make into those best-in-class tools and products.

However, no two networks are exactly alike. Some stand out for their behavioural targeting abilities, while others offer a particularly
impressive cost per action (CPA). Some boast relationships with specific, big-name publishers, while others make a virtue of their vast reach.

There is a shopping list of questions that advertisers and their agencies should run through when they audition their networks. For example, it is important to know whether a network has a direct relationship with its publishers, or if the network actually operates as an ad exchange, buying leftover inventory from elsewhere.

Advertisers should also ask whether the targeting and measurement technology is bespoke or bought off the shelf from a company such as DoubleClick. It is also best to establish up front whether the network proposes to communicate on a regular basis, feeding back reports and campaign optimisation suggestions. Some simply feed the ads into the system and let you know when the time comes to book again.

There is no upward or downward limit on the number of networks an agency may use on its clients’ behalf. Some agencies prefer to enlist large numbers of networks, while others limit themselves to two or three for a given client.

It is crucial that clients assign the appropriate budgetary weight to the cause when going into a network-driven campaign.

Daniel de Sybel, head of technology at Media Contacts, advises: The main caveat for working with networks is that you have to have a reasonable-sized budget. Going to someone with £500 is not going to get you anywhere.

Indisputably, the major recent change in the network world has been towards behavioural targeting, which comes in several varieties.

At a basic level, most networks offer the ability to target ads at people who have already visited a client’s website, attempting to turn interest into conversion, or alternatively to target existing users with new deals.

Target practice
Chris Maples, sales director, Microsoft Advertising and former managing director of Microsoft-owned DrivePM, says: From that, the idea of sequential messaging, where you tell a story to a particular user over a period of time, becomes hugely interesting.

Likewise, clients can buy into a set of customers that have visited another site, on the basis that their web travels demonstrate an interest in a particular type of content.

That is the type that is arguably more interesting, but it is also more fraught with remuneration issues, says de Sybel. If you take people who have been to, say, Auto Trader, you can sell to clients as a population that is interested in cars.

This means that the client will pay two publishers: the one that ultimately hosts the ad and the one – in this case, Auto Trader – that provides the prospect data. Software solutions with the ability to track such complex processes are occasionally imperfect, but are developing fast.

Distinguishing between the technology offered by different networks may be the ultimate headache for agencies shopping around, but good systems are a large part of what makes the difference between a successful campaign and a poor one.

Colin Petrie-Norris, managing director, international, at Specific Media, says: You have got to make sure that buyers can understand what they are doing. They require feedback, so good reporting and customer insight is a point of differentiation.

Clearly, every ad network will be inclined to claim its solution leads the market, so the only sensible thing to do is to make them prove it.
Ask to see some of their reports, advises Petrie-Norris.

We are able to provide a report for a customer before they spend any money with us. Using our behavioural network we can tell, before a customer has even spent a single penny with us, who will react well to their brand and which demographic segments and regions will give the best results for them.

Although the onus is on the networks to demonstrate their power to clients and agencies, the networks also have some advice for those seeking to get the best out of their campaigns.

Planners and buyers would help themselves if they were to trust us more and not just jump on the cheapest deal out there, says ValueClick’s Sharp. I applaud a lot of the bigger agencies who have said they will only work with IASH (Internet Advertising Sales House) members – I think that is an absolute must.

Top tips for choosing an ad network

- Local advertisers should consider a locally focused network such as Yell.com

- Ensure your network has the right tool-kit of analytic software

- Always ask for reports and examples of previous campaigns

- Check that your network has direct relationships with publishers and is not just buying leftover space

- Ensure you have the budget to run an effective campaign

- Don’t be tempted by the cheapest deal

- Make sure your brand values are respected by your chosen network so your ads don’t end up in the wrong places


Alvin and the Chipmunks – A model network-driven campaign

When it came to running a targeted online ad campaign around the release of its Alvin and the Chipmunks film, 20th Century Fox gave ValueClick Media a thorough brief.

As well as raising awareness of the characters among four to nine-year-olds using high-quality sites, the push aimed to encourage children to download video content – articularly the film’s trailer – and to increase interaction time on the website.

Ideally, the campaign would also generate awareness among children while they were online with their parents.

What followed in the month before the film’s UK opening on 21 December last year was a model of a broad-based, network-driven campaign with a specific cross-generational target audience.

ValueClick’s coverage of the youth audience weighs in at 92%, based on a combination of entertainment and education sites, and it put the Alvin and the Chipmunks brand in front of 14,000 children.

The film also achieved a higher number of trailer downloads than any other comparable 20th Century Fox release, generating an inter-activity rate of 38% above the average in the process.

A click-through rate of 500% above industry average was the icing on the cake.

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