Commentary

Finding Digital Blind Spots

Digital advertising is a complex business. Selling, trafficking and billing often vast and fluid quantities of ad inventory can be challenging. Publishers, frequently focused on creating compelling new content to attract site visitors, can end up taking their eye off advertising operations. And it's the revenue these ad ops generate that typically serves as the dominant source of income to support and grow their businesses.

Even the best content can't sell advertising to support itself. The crush of real-time information flowing through the business end of an organization creates significant blind spots in publishers' ad operations. Problems arising from these blind spots include the inability to see who the potential and actual ad buyers are, what inventory the publisher has to offer them, what creatives are to be provided and when, and how many impressions are served, particularly by third-party ad servers. The inescapable result is that ad revenue and client relationships suffer. And if ad revenue suffers, it's only a matter of time before the content -- and the site itself -- follows suit.

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To survive and grow, publishers must gain and maintain control over their businesses. These companies need the flexibility to access and present data simply and informatively, without putting themselves at the mercy of solution providers whose supposedly all-inclusive packages are restricted to only those providers' systems. That openness needs to extend to all the best-of-breed systems used to cover every aspect of the process, with all the necessary third-party systems integrated through a single interface.

Thankfully, online advertising is recovering from its beginnings as a 21st-century process built on a 20th-century model, and best practices are emerging that shine light on the blind spots that lead to missed opportunities and revenue. With a few well-researched and strategically implemented processes, companies can automate their workflow and capture the information needed to drive business growth. But diligence is required to ensure that processes are built for the long run and that companies don't slip into old habits or select apparently attractive solutions that can create even more blind spots that undermine their business.

Blind Spot No. 1 -- Sales
Most publishers encounter their first blind spot on a daily -- even hourly -- basis, as internal sales teams compete for the most valuable ad inventory available. Like an exasperated parent driving a car full of squabbling siblings, managing competing reservations and bookings can send even the best ad sales professionals to the brink. And it's not just figuring out what inventory is available -- it's getting a system to handle all internal and external processes that involve the identification, sale, placement, and billing of advertising opportunities.

For example, publishers need a dedicated, automated resource that can act as a traffic cop to help and guide general and sales management on decisions concerning how valuable space is sold, e.g., allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis or prioritized by the amount of revenue it drives to the site or the importance of the client. This may well result in some clients being provided with second choices on placements, but it will ultimately mean that the client's ads actually run rather than unexpectedly ending up on the floor. This ultimately means greater client satisfaction and greater revenue opportunities for the publisher.

Once space has been allocated and a sale is pending, the work has just begun and the opportunity for blind spots only increases. Ad buys are hardly straightforward, and require a sales support system that can identify and handle packaging, building proposals, and targeting against an RFP or buy that defines audiences differently than traditional content-driven practices.

Publishers also need a system to help decide whether their packages will be content-focused or audience-focused or both, and then implement a process that will determine what creative is involved and where it will run on the site when building an ad package. They also need a process that will enable connectivity to the buy side -- the advertising and agency community -- efficiently and effectively, and optimize revenue using historical pricing, market data and benchmarks.

By organizing and automating these sales processes, the critical part of generating revenue -- sales -- will be transparent and controllable.

Blind Spot No. 2 -- Operation
In operations, late creatives are the scourge of the industry. These seemingly inevitable occurrences can leave publishers scrambling to fill their insertion orders, and often result in money being left on the table. The traditional way of dealing with late creatives may be either to reschedule the ad campaign or to penalize the client after the fact, but either way you end up with a disgruntled advertiser and undercut your revenue opportunities. It's more important to take steps to avoid late creatives altogether, eliminating the anxiety from lost revenue and the additional cost of confronting a last-minute rush on every deal.

A workflow that implements better communication among sales, operations and the client will keep everyone apprised of deadlines before they are missed and will free teams to better manage quality control, compatibility and content for increasingly diverse and complicated media creatives. Such a process will let campaigns run when they are supposed to and lead to more satisfied clients.

Blind Spot No. 3 -- Billing
Now for the fun part -- the publisher needs to collect what's owed for the space that sold. You would think that this would be the last place for a blind spot to appear, but that's not the case. For example, many ad deals require that the agency/advertiser ad server be used to determine the number of impressions to be billed. Typically, that ad server doesn't measure ad impressions the same way the publisher's agency ad server does and the discrepancy -- which can often involve a difference in "impressions served" calculations of up to 20 percent -- slows down payment.

If publishers can automatically retrieve reports from both servers, they can avoid a time-consuming manual retrieval process and bill more quickly based on those third-party ad server impression numbers. Keeping track of the discrepancies automatically will also make it possible to negotiate more reasonably on future deals involving third-party ad server numbers. This closes another blind spot while increasing revenue, reducing operating costs and saving crucial time.

Identify Blind Spots -- And Eliminate Them
This is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Countless more blind spots exist. Ad business processes are critical to a publisher's business, but if not implemented and run properly, the type and number of blind spots can be crippling to a company's survival and growth.

Blind spots indicate a lack of control over the business. Publishers dedicate a great amount of time to controlling their site's content and appeal, but to succeed they need to exercise the same control over their business processes. This can only happen through the thoughtful use of personnel and systems to support them that reflect the needs of the market now and in the future.

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