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Why we need to realistically differentiate ad networks
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A while ago, I wrote a piece on how ad networks can differentiate themselves. For those who weren't following along, the lack of differentiation among the rapidly increasing number of ad networks is a major complaint for agency media buyers.
This piece spawned an interesting conversation. Many of the potential differentiators I pointed to were non-starters for some of the ad networks. Some of the ad network sales reps who privately emailed me or talked to me about the piece indicated that, for their company at least, it was difficult to stake out an "ownable" position given the attributes I had focused on.
For example, I talked about technology and targeting as two important potential differentiators. That's fine if you happen to be a network like Advertising.com, Centro, or 24/7 Real Media, which have invested in their own proprietary technologies over the years and have thus reaped the benefits. But what if you're one of the many networks that have outsourced its ad serving or targeting technology to third-party providers? It's tough to own a unique position if others have access to your technology, right?
For reasons we've discussed recently, reach and transparency are becoming less ownable as well. Ad networks are more fluid with respect to available inventory every day, and so many ad networks will be less able to provide a clear picture of precisely where ads will or will not run. Don't even get me started on reach.
That leaves us with performance, which means different things to different marketers (as ValueClick is so fond of showcasing in its trade campaigns), and editorial environments as potential stakes in the ground for ad networks. Given that DR and brand advertisers alike tend to have custom performance metrics, and that they tend to keep results close to the vest, it's difficult to make performance a believable and ownable differentiator.
In terms of the editorial environment, this is where I think ad networks can make the most difference. Advertisers want to know that networks are protecting their brand from inappropriate editorial environments, and they also want to know that they're comfortable associating with the various publishers contributing inventory to the ad buy.
Some premium publishers have indicated their desire to work with fewer ad networks, or even no ad networks at all. Their willingness to actually cut ties, though, remains to be seen in most cases, since cutting relationships with ad networks often leaves ad revenue on the table.
If these premium publishers do act on this stated desire, though, the opportunity exists for premium networks to give agencies and advertisers access to inventory they wouldn't otherwise be able to get. And as I've said before, if an ad network has unique access to inventory, it will likely prosper.
Develop a reputation for consistently delivering premium inventory on an exclusive basis, and you've got an ownable position that can set you apart from the rest of the pack.
Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com.