August 03, 2010
How To

Choose the Right Ad Network: 5 Tactics to Understand Targeting and Reporting Options

SUMMARY: Marketers have more online display ad networks to choose from than ever. But with many of those networks using the same online inventory, you may be tempted to think they're all the same.

Actually, they're not. Learn which key factors differentiate today's online ad networks, and how you can better choose which network to use. Includes key questions to ask, and what you can expect from reports and targeting.
by Adam T. Sutton, Reporter

The list of online display advertising networks continues to grow, but their inventory of sites and the audiences they reach has remained largely the same, says Angelique Gillmer, Media Director, Razorfish.

"They're all feeding off the same pool, if you will. There's a lot of overlap in the network space."

This continued expansion gives marketers more flexibility when choosing networks, and it is driving more networks to differentiate themselves in other areas such as:
o Customer service
o Technology
o Targeting
o Reporting

"Those are the parts that are going to be the unique differentiating factors that set apart one network from another," says Gillmer.

Gillmer has purchased and managed campaigns on various online ad networks for years. She offers the following tactics for finding the right network for your team.

Tactic #1. Question networks thoroughly

When you're on the phone with salespeople, they will likely say their network features premium inventory, your ads will never be paired with offensive content, and you will receive monthly reports on your campaigns' performance.

You have to dig down to find out exactly what these claims mean. "Premium" and "offensive" are relative terms, and reports vary in usefulness.

Questions to ask:

- How does your backend technology work?

You should have a thorough understanding of how the network's operators match your ads to relevant content and how the network categorizes content.

- What types of targeting do you deploy?

One key differentiator is the level of targeting the networks offer. Ask the network operators how their targeting works and whether it's supplied by a third party (more on this below).

- What exactly do the reports look like?

Ask for sample reports so you can understand the level of campaign insight you'll receive. Some networks have surprisingly sparse reports (more on this below).

Tactic #2. Understand targeting and its costs

Some networks differentiate themselves by enabling marketers to target ads based on demographic, geographic and/or behavioral user information. The networks typically charge a premium for this service.

If you're interested in targeting, find out exactly how the network targets audiences. For example, if a network offers the ability to target "soccer moms," find out exactly what qualifies someone as a member of that group.

Beware of:

- Poor targeting

You may be surprised to find that someone who visited a parenting forum and a sports news website once in the last six months qualifies as a "soccer mom," which is obviously insufficient data on which to base a profile.

- Old data

Targeting may be based on data collected as far back as 18 months.

- Small audiences

The size of your audience will decrease as you add additional layers of targeting. Make sure you're not segmenting your audience into single digits.

- Overpricing

Targeted ads typically cost more than broad-reach ads, so make sure you're getting additional value and better performance for your money.

If the network uses a third party to handle its targeting (which is becoming increasingly common), contact the vendor and ask them about their processes.

Tactic #3. Look for strong reports

The strength of a network's reports is a key differentiating factor. Networks increasingly offer granular reports on where ads ran and how they performed.

"Those are really valuable partners to a [media] planning team, and to an agency, and to a brand," Gillmer says.

- The most common type of report Gillmer sees is a list of five to 10 websites that contributed the highest level of ad impressions in a given month. Advertisers can make assumptions about the audiences they're reaching based on the sites' content and user demographics.

- The stronger reports that Gillmer sees offer more information on the people who clicked ads, such as which sites they recently visited and their presumed demographics.

- On the other hand, some networks offer much less. "Some networks have hardly any reporting. Some have none at all, at least none they can show to us," Gillmer says.

Be sure to ask any potential network partners what specific information they provide in their reports.

"You need to be gaining insights about what's going on. It can't just be a black box."

Tactic #4. Ask for case studies and check references

Some networks have been around for years and have established reputations. Some are better known for customer service. Others are better known for premium targeting technology.

Ask your colleagues about their experiences with ad networks, and ask any networks you're considering for references and case studies.

When you call references, ask for their overall impression of the network's performance, their favorite aspect of the network, their least favorite aspect, and any other specifics you find relevant.

In case studies, look for examples of how the network helped optimize a campaign over time and boosted its performance from average to stellar.

"If they can't give you that information, then that seems like a red flag that maybe that is not the type of network you need to be working with," Gillmer says.

Tactic #5. Run a test campaign

Before diving into a network with a full budget, run a smaller test. This will prevent major headaches and lost money while your team learns in a controlled environment. Then, you can expand upon a solid foundation.

Also, be sure not to target too narrowly with your initial campaign. Gillmer suggests starting with a broad audience with only one or two specified attributes. This will avoid over-segmenting your audience into a small size that skews your test results.

Also, be sure to test several networks and to be patient. Finding the right fit for your team's media strategy is surely worth the time.

Useful links related to this article

Members Library -- Banner Ad Test Drives Site Redesign: 4 Steps to 18% More Traffic

Members Library -- Chart: Lines Between Display Ads, Search, and Social Blurring Rapidly


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