Let’s look at one of the most confusing terms in AdTech
Ad Network is probably one of the most confusing and poorly defined terms in the Ad Tech industry – despite the term’s being practically ubiquitous.
What IS an ad network? How is it different from a DSP or an SSP of an Ad Exchange? This is precisely the question that we are going to address today.
It’s a broad term
One of the reasons that “Ad Network” is used all over the place, but so rarely clearly defined, is because it is simply a very broad term that encompasses a lot of different companies and strategies within the wider world of digital marketing.
So many different companies with very diverse angles and offerings call themselves Ad Networks.
And although there are many self-described Ad Networks out there all doing seemingly different things, there’s still a solid definition available – even if it is broad.
An Ad Network is a company that joins those with digital ad inventory to those looking to buy/place digital ads.
Those with digital ad inventory are generally publishers that have apps or websites whose traffic they’d like to monetize.
Those supplying the demand in this equation are “advertisers,” that is to say just about any company or individual who would like to place a digital ad.
An Ad Network works with both sides of this equation.
An Ad Network will gather and categorize online ad inventory and offer this categorized ad inventory to advertisers who want to place ads on sites in said categories.
It’s not an Ad Exchange
One of the things that can be a little bit difficult to understand for people who are new to AdTech is how an Ad Network is different from an Ad Exchange.
Well, let’s go back to our definition: an Ad Network is a company that joins digital advertising inventory with those looking to place digital ads.
That is to say, both advertisers and publishers work with Ad Networks.
An Ad Exchange serves a similar role but in a very strict, much-reduced capacity.
Ad Exchanges are a means through which Demand-Side Platforms and Supply-Side Platforms can buy and sell, respectively, ads.
Ad Exchanges operate programmatically. This means that each inbound impression is auctioned off and sold individually in the milliseconds that pass between a link being clicked and the page itself fully loading.
Ad Networks, on the other hand, might buy traffic in bulk, directly from publishers, on a CPC or a CPM basis, i.e. non-programmatically.
An Ad Network might use one or multiple Ad Exchanges (it might even operate one), but an Ad Network wants to bring together ad demand with ad inventory (or websites/apps looking for ads to host). And this can be done non-programmatically.
While the online advertising industry has definitely been trending toward programmatic for a long time, the Ad Network still maintains an important place in the system.
Oftentimes Ad Networks won’t be “just” Ad Networks. “Pure” Ad Networks are becoming increasingly rare. Most will be Ad Networks and also something else.
For example, here at Mobinner, we are an Ad Network AND a Demand-Side Platform. In fact, the Demand-Side Platform is our primary product, but we also function as an Ad Network using our own DSP (among other tools) to place ads for customers.
Once a threat, now an asset
It was once thought that the advent of Real-Time Bidding and its component technologies (the Demand-Side Platform, Supply-Side Platform, and the Ad Exchange) heralded the end of the Ad Network.
That Real-Time Bidding was so effective and so much more efficient than traditional media buying that these older tools and means of organization would be completely left by the wayside.
As it turned out, this was quite far from the truth.
While some ad networks obviously drowned in the seas of change, others managed to adapt and nimbly integrate the new technology into their offerings.
In fact, many Ad Networks fill gaps in their inventory by buying traffic programmatically and reselling it to advertisers. This is just one of the ways that Ad Networks have adapted to the programmatic age.
Kinds of Ad Networks
There are many, many different kinds of ad networks out there. Some differentiate themselves based on the vertical on which they focus, others by the kind of ads that they offer.
It is almost impossible to list all the different ways that ad networks differentiate and divide themselves without going through every single major ad network.
However, there are some broad categories into which Ad Networks can fall, and it is worthwhile to take the time to understand them.
Specializing by format
Most ad networks work with a very large variety of ad formats (pop, push, banner, native, etc.), but with certain formats, it is common for ad networks to specialize in them.
This was once one of the most common forms of specialized ad networks. Indeed, Mobinner began its journey as a Mobile Ad Network before we developed our Demand-Side Platform and started expanding the number of formats with which we work.
When mobile advertising was still relatively new and significantly less regularized, Mobile Ad Networks were very common as mobile wasn’t yet integrated into the wider digital advertising world.
Nowadays, mobile advertising is significantly more important than desktop advertising and, consequently, practically all networks are going to work with mobile. Otherwise, they’d lose a significant percentage of their clients!
Nevertheless, ad networks specializing in mobile advertising, especially in some specific niche or subsector of mobile advertising, are still alive and kicking.
Serving video advertisements is quite a bit different from serving more traditional digital ad types. For one thing, videos are typically viewed through some embedded player, and they are often watched in full-screen.
This means that traditional digital ads, like banner, wouldn’t work because they can’t be seen in full-screen mode. And popups would be incredibly disruptive and destroy the experience, thereby driving users away.
Ad-types leftover from television have come to dominate (video commercials shown before and in the middle of the video, for example).
Serving these ads and integrating with embedded players, although it has gotten easier, is still a specialized process. This, combined with the fact that the ads themselves are quite different from your average display ad has led to a variety of networks specializing in video ads alone.
Lastly, it is quite common for there to be networks that specialize exclusively in Native advertising. Native advertising is an advertising format that is designed to integrate well with the actual site that is hosting the content. A common form of this is the “sponsored article” that is often seen on blogs or news sites.
Native advertising is also very commonly found at the bottom of forums, and similar sites.
Ad Networks sometimes specialize in other formats as well. For example, Pop Networks are relatively common. But the most common format-specialized ad networks are those listed above.
The biggest native advertising networks are Taboola and Outbrain. These two networks recently announced that they would be merging.
Vertical ad networks are networks that specialize in a specific vertical. That is, the supply that they offer maybe be quite a bit smaller, but it will be focused on their vertical.
So an advertiser interested in that vertical might well pay more and receive fewer impressions with a vertical-specific ad network, but those impressions will be, in theory, significantly more useful.
An example of this would be sports.
A sports advertising network would be a vertical-specific ad network focused on building a wide array of sports-based inventory that could then be further categorized (lacrosse, football, women’s sports) and sold to companies looking to advertise to sports fans, etc.
Perhaps one of the most common vertical ad networks is the adult ad network.
This is a category of advertisement and supply that is generally avoided unless it is explicitly sought out.
Since these ads and this kind of traffic are often segregated from the wider digital ad population, vertical-specific Ad Networks play an important role in this industry.
Blind Ad Networks
Blind Ad Networks play a very important role in the industry and you’ve likely come across them in the past.
Blind ad networks let you choose specific characteristics of the audience that you’d like to target, but they don’t let you see the actual sites on which the ads will appear.
If you are buying ad space with a blind Ad Network then you cannot pick the sites nor see which sites are displaying your ad. However, you can often see numeric codes for each site (subID) so you can whitelist and blacklist sites within a given Ad Network, even if you don’t know the real site address.
When it comes to placing ads for the first time, however, you aren’t shooting in the dark. Far from it.
With a blind Ad Network, there are generally quite a few demographic and device targeting options that are available to you.
Standard targeting features include things like Geographic location (GEO), User-Agent, Device type, Language, etc. Further, since the traffic is already categorized, user interests can also be targeted.
So while you cannot target an exact site with a blind ad network (or even see where the ad is appearing), oftentimes this is still more than good enough for advertisers – especially those that don’t want to sit around trying to select every site on which they want their ad to appear.
Just being able to blacklist and whitelist sites from within the Ad Network’s platform itself is generally sufficient for most advertisers’ needs.
The Ad Network once seemed like it was an industry dinosaur, a transitory structure that just bridged the gap between the dark ages of digital advertising and the new Programmatic Promised Land.
However, the Ad Network has proven itself to be extremely adaptable and has integrated itself well into the new programmatic age.
An Ad Network is a company that aggregates and categorizes Ad Supply (websites/apps/etc. that want to monetize traffic) and sells it, in turn, to advertisers that want to place ads in a given category.
An Ad Exchange, frequently confused with Ad Networks, is a key part of the programmatic digital advertising ecosystem that allows SSPs to put impressions on auction and DSPs to bid on them.
An Ad Network may (or may not) operate an Ad Exchange, but an Ad Exchange is not an Ad Network.