Want Your Online Ad to Perform? Try Buying Some Good Content

With Ad Networks You Really Do Get What You Pay for

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Charlie Tillinghast
Charlie Tillinghast

A few weeks ago, my teenage daughter and I drove from Charlottesville, Va., to Boston on a 1,200-mile college tour. At each college we visited, we were handed beautiful brochures to match the equally beautiful campuses. Each school had taken great pains to maximize their image -- or brand -- in an effort to impress tens of thousands of prospective students, even though they will actually accept only a small fraction of them.

At a traffic light near a busy freeway on-ramp along our route, we encountered a homeless man soliciting donations from passing motorists. The man was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the name of one of the colleges we had just visited. I said to my daughter, "The college would probably pay that guy a $100 to not wear a shirt with their name on it." Here on the freeway was a lesson on the importance of environment to brand marketing. Even though far more impressions were delivered by the homeless man than the college brochures, it wouldn't take a national merit scholar to determine that the value of those impressions, even when delivered to the same audiences, isn't the same.

To listen to the case for ad networks, however, that is exactly what is being sold. The argument is that if an ad can be served to the right audience target , it doesn't matter what the quality of the environment is in which the ad appears. Ironically, this view is more a reaction to traditional media buying than a proven fact. In traditional media, context is used as a proxy for behavior. For example, readers of fashion magazines attract cosmetic advertisers, since that is the most likely place that the target audience can be reached. But on the web, if those same readers could be reached on any site, then why pay more for the fashion site? Better yet, the efficiency of buying through a single ad network rather than multiple sites reduces purchasing costs. If it works, then a T-shirt on a freeway on-ramp is as good as a campus tour, but research says that environment makes a difference -- a big one.

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What a brand ad looks like on MSNBC.com.

The value of the environment
In the fourth part of a series titled "Improving Ad Performance Online," the Online Publishers Association (OPA) commissioned Dynamic Logic to compare the effectiveness of ad campaigns on branded content sites versus ad networks. Based on an analysis of over 6,000 campaigns using independent Dynamic Logic MarketNorms data, ads on quality content sites consistently had significant effectiveness in all of the following areas: raising awareness, creating message association, generating brand favorability and driving purchase intent -- particularly among decision makers and influencers. By rolling up OPA member sites as a proxy for content sites and comparing them against ad networks, all the value metrics -- from the top of the funnel to the bottom -- are stronger on content sites.

Conversely, buying audiences simply based on efficiency through ad networks results in no impact on purchase intent and negligible impact on driving brand awareness. The bottom line from three years of research: when you focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness, not only are you wasting your dollars but you are not achieving your marketing goals. In addition, results showed that ad networks provided advertisers with the least change across effectiveness metrics. In fact, in the highly coveted 18- to 34-year-old audience, those exposed to ads on ad networks resulted in a negative impact on purchase intent. The group with the most buying power isn't buying.

The choice to run campaigns on quality content sites is not a trade-off between targeting and context. With quality content sites, advertisers have the benefit of a great environment and the ability to target audiences. Targeting technology is not limited to ad networks, demand side platforms, exchanges, or other intermediaries -- publishers offer it too for their sites at scale.

Just like the difference between seeing a brand name on a brochure provided on a campus tour and an old T-shirt at a freeway on-ramp, the placement of your ad matters greatly in its effectiveness at driving key branding metrics. OPA's research proves that when it comes to driving ad effectiveness and moving the needle, environment matters.

Charlie Tillinghast is president of MSNBC Interactive News.
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