A slew of ad management systems claim to help do exactly that. They promise to deliver Internet ads to the right target market at the right place at the right time.
In the real world, however, while ad management is a hot topic for discussion, few sites use more than a fraction of the ad management systems' features.
Why? For one, vendor hype outpaces technical complexities. Most advertisers aren't clamoring to push the envelope, either.
CATCHING UP TO NETGRAVITY
NetGravity is the clear market leader in the space, with more than 100 customers, including Netscape, Los Angeles Times and Time Inc.'s Pathfinder.
Another company, Accipiter, has secured a dozen or so big-name sites itself, including Lycos, CNET and ZDNet.
Other vendors will have to play hard to catch up in the competitive sector. As a result, many new entrants, such as Intelligent Interactions Corp., aspire to offer new bells and whistles, meshing Internet advertising with marketer databases, demographic information, etc.
No matter which ad management system a publisher site uses, here's a handy guide to the features that advertisers can expect.
While each ad server vendor insists it has the "most advanced targeting capabilities available," targeting is, in fact, the most overhyped, underutilized feature of ad management. It's a lot harder to do than it sounds.
John Nardone, director of media and research at Modem Media, Westport, Conn., said marketers can use advanced targeting only when sites track visitors via registration forms.
"Just putting NetGravity on your site doesn't allow you to target based on user profiles. You have to build the user profiles first," he said. The "yin to that yang," he added, is privacy.
"Advertisers want to target based on one-to-one profiles, but there is equal pressure in the opposite direction against creating those user profiles," he said.
HIGHLY TARGETED CAMPAIGNS
At the same time, few advertisers are attempting highly targeted campaigns.
Forrester Research's recent report, "What Advertising Works," found that of 51 large advertisers interviewed, only 16% even tried to match ads to relevant content (e.g., sports ads in sports sections). Detailed targeting by user demographics wasn't even a blip on Forrester's chart.
Nonetheless, all of the ad systems can target visitors in many ways.
The most basic targeting is by browser type, computer platform and IP address -- information every browser volunteers.
For demographics and psychographics, all the vendors can also leverage visitor profiles from site registration forms or advertisers' own customer databases.
Most, but not all, of the systems can control how many times one Net surfer sees the same ad before "banner burnout" sets in. The systems permit Burma Shave-style campaigns of ad series, too.
Animated and interactive ads generally score higher ratios of click-throughs than static pictures and, accordingly, all the ad systems support banners with Java, Shockwave, audio, video and even commercial transactions with third-party sites.
Online advertisers are most likely to come face-to-interface with these software packages through their ad campaign performance reports.
All of the systems claim to have flexible report formats, providing a variety of templates, plus the option to export the raw data to any common database program.
All but NetGravity allow up-to-the-minute monitoring of campaigns, though NetGravity comes pretty close, making statistics available hourly.
Sites and advertisers say reviewing statistics daily or weekly is generally adequate.