NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- For years, ad networks specialized in what was largely an arbitrage game -- aggregate a bunch of impressions cheaply and sell that inexpensive scale to direct-response marketers who, as long as they could back into effective cost-per-acquisitions were happy.
But more recently a swath of networks is seeking to go after brand marketers, marketers that aren't necessarily selling something online but looking to advertise to increase awareness, purchase intent, likelihood to recommend and favorability as well as sell stuff in their offline supermarkets and department stores. And the results are encouraging advertisers to take a second look at the channel.
Brand awareness is hard to quantify, said Undertone Networks CEO Mike Cassidy, who estimates 30% of Undertone clients are focused on awareness objectives. One recent campaign focused on those kinds of metrics was a six-week A1 Thick & Hearty Farewell Tour for Whataburger, managed by Southwest Media Group. The goal included driving traffic but also generating awareness and engaging a select group of consumers. The buy combined rich media and standard ad units using Undertone sites to help deliver the message, as well as TV, radio, mobile, outdoor and social networks as well as online display and a microsite.
Among the key performance measures were awareness, social-media buzz, and actions taken on the microsite.
"The campaign resulted in a tremendous uplift in social buzz while we saw a much higher level of interaction on the microsite with many of the engagement elements we integrated," said Steve Thomas, chief strategy officer for Southwest Media Group, which managed the buy.
"We leverage ad networks where it's the right fit for our objectives," said Mr. Thomas. "Sometimes those objectives involve brand awareness as well as a specific 'action' objective like driving traffic."
Many networks are starting to tout brand-impact data, rather than the conversion rates the industry was focused on in years past.
Brand.net, for example, focuses on measuring offline sales impact, but also has seen demonstrated results in attitudinal impacts (brand awareness, consideration and purchase intent), online activity (increase in branded search term use, website engagement, web presence SOV). He reports that average offline sales ROI for advertisers using its network is 190%, significantly better than the long-term average of portal-based programs, which is 157%.
A key area of focus for brands, said Andy Atherton, Brand.net chief operating officer, is content quality. His network uses page-level filtering to find brand-safe environments for advertisers and swaps a PSA for a paid ad at serve time when objectionable content is detected. Undertone Networks, meanwhile, lets publishers create their own networks by tapping into Undertone's sites, which include properties from NBC, Discovery, Sports, Illustrated and Hearst.
When it comes to measuring the brand impact of network buys, it's a mix of tactics. Another network, Lotame, is using brand-equity measurement coupled with mathematical regression analysis to improve online advertising effectiveness. It uses five-question in-banner survey measurement from KN Dimestore, Vizu and its proprietary Lotame Crowd Control, to determine key drivers and optimize campaigns.
Incidentally, recent research by Lotame showed a negative correlation between click-through rate and brand metrics, says Eric Porres, chief marketing officer. People clicking on ads are less likely to spend time with them and have less recall. On the other hand, banner interaction rates have very high positive correlations with purchase and viewing intent.
Can networks drive branding?
In a campaign for a leading CPG company, the research showed that purchase intent was 11% higher among the women in the target audience who had not seen the ads. The targeting was then changed from TV and design topics to photos and fan art, resulting in a purchase intent lift of 12% for ad viewers.
Jay Sears, general manager of Context Web's ADSDAQ, maintains brand objectives can be easily reached with a system that uses page-level technology to deliver advertisers the control of a site-specific buy with the reach of a portal. Each month, he says, the ADSDAQ Ad Exchange reaches as many users looking at health content as WebMD (16 million), as many users looking at finance content as Forbes.com (6 million) and as many users looking at sports content as ESPN.com (20 million).
ContextWeb's advertisers routinely use both the proprietary insights we provide as well as third-party research providers such as ComScore, Vizu, Dynamic Logic and Insight Express to determine brand impacts.
One trend that will continue to grow is "faster, cheaper" insights and insights that are bundled with media -- advertisers are making more and more adjustments midflight, so expect to be able to see campaign insights in real time. Effectively advertisers are becoming "media traders" and need real-time insights to make effective, profitable decisions about buying and selling.
Lisa Valentino, VP of digital sales for ESPN.com, which shunned using ad networks to sell its inventory a few years ago, is not surprisingly unwavering in her belief that networks cannot drive branding.
"Today there are 300-plus ad networks out there. There's so much choice. It's so confusing," she says. "I constantly evaluate ad networks. I still take the meetings. They're out there with false messages, branding themselves as premium or as niche. But when you pull back the curtain, it's really not true. It causes a problem for agencies trying to find out which provide real targeting and real metrics. It's a real cluttered marketplace."