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Defining a publisher – the myopia of Ad:Tech

21 April, 2009 (16:33) | branding | By: Shannon Clark

I am at Ad:Tech San Francisco all this week, my third Ad:Tech SF I have attended, I’ve also attended multiple Ad:Tech’s in NYC.  I attend as a blogger and journalist, as well as an interested analyst, consultant and entrepreneur. Every year i seek out who is, in fact, delivering really innovative and valuable services and every year I find myself puzzled by most of the exhibitors. 

This year I have had a bit of an “Aha” moment this morning and early afternoon, namely that for the majority of this show the definition of what is a “publisher” is stuck in a model of about a decade ago, a model which in turn is based on a fairly simple modeling of non-Internet media properties to the web. 

Namely that a publisher, in this context, is a company which offers up lots of media content – usually text (with links) but increasingly also video (pure audio is another approach but one which gets only minimal coverage). This model plays mostly into a volume game – where “content” is stretched over multiple pages, each page is layered with more or less well “targeted” advertising (in a variety of formats) and where “traffic” is in turn generated in large part via ad buying – where the name of the game is to pay less for the traffic than is generated via revenues from that traffic. Organic search traffic is vital as other than the costs associated with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) that traffic would usually be lower cost than nearly any other form of traffic. 

Into this model of publishing with little variation (minor for sites which are video versus textually based) steps most of the companies who exhibit at Ad:Tech. 

  1. Traffic businesses – whether Search Engine Optimization i.e.SEO firms or platforms on which ads can be run to generate traffic often these firms are search engines – Google is one example. To be fair, many of these businesses are here for a number of reasons, Google for example is also showing off their Website Optimizer and Google Analytics products. 
  2. Ad server providers as well as Ad Networks who offer to serve up ads for the publisher. The ad server providers provide mostly raw technology to serve the ads, the ad networks also in theory provide ads to serve. Targeting companies may help or be partnered with these providers to help determine which ads to show to whom. Ad Optimizers (such as my friends at Rubicon Project) offer services for publishers by optimizing ads from multiple sources (directly sourced, various ad networks) including ads of multiple forms. Some ad networks offer ads of only one type – common variations are Cost per Thousand Impressions or CPM – usually banner ads or other visual ad formats such as some video ads, Cost per Click or CPC – often seen in text link ads though occasionally also banner ads, Cost per Action or CPA – generally paid after some transaction is completed such as filling in a form or registering and a few Cost per Lead or CPL – which are similar to CPA ads but generally represent further qualification of the individual completing the actions to define that person as really a true lead for the business.
  3. Affiliate Networks – in some ways similar to ad networks but with an important variation. Where an ad network usually offers a rane of creatives, sometimes priced in a variety of ways, an affiliate network offers a series of offers which a publisher can share and for which the publisher will be paid based on transactions completed. These transactions can be newly registered users, purchases online (or occasionally purchases offline), subscriptions ordered etc. The archetypal example of an affiliate program is’s Associates program but there are literally hundreds of programs as well as dozens of networks of programs.
  4. Service providers to publishers – exhibiting here this year are a number of companies who offer payment processing and other services for web publishers, in most cases intended for websites who might be using online advertising to generate traffic but then need additional services to close a transaction and get paid. 
  5. Service providers to ad agencies (and the occasional direct brand) – there are a number of companies here who are showing off tools to help manage advertising campaigns from the ad buying perspective, tools that might, for example, help decide where to place ads across a number of networks and at what price points and to manage the spending. In most cases they may also help track results from the online advertising such as clicks and other metrics. 

And those are the majority of the firms exhibiting here at Ad:Tech San Francisco 2009. There are a few exceptions, the occasional digital agency, law firm, magazine or industry organization and there are a few variations of firms in the mobile and video spaces who offer specific tools or additional functionality. 

What most share, however, is a myopic view of what is a Publisher.

Publisher, as assumed by most of the companies exhibiting here at Ad:Tech,  is a website which has lots of “content” across a number of pages. In most cases this “content” is text and around that text (or before/after it loads or via modifications to the text) a range of ads and offers can be presented. Most publishers are defined as having some amount of traffic, measured in page views (and often in unique users in a given month) where the unit of a “page” is generally an HTML page. Video sites may talk in terms of the videos viewed and occasionally the number of minutes spent viewing those videos. Most of the publshers are assumed to have sites which are crawled by search engines and in turn in most cases are assumed to generate a great deal of traffic from search engines (though the best publishers also have a lot of natural or direct traffic – i.e. actual people who go directly to that site on a regular basis. 

What is mising from this view is a world of new media, the worlds of applications and services where increasingly more and more of the time and attention of Internet users is spent. 

The majority of so called Web 2.0 companies, for example, would not be considered a publisher by this definition, much of what occurs within such applications is opaaque to search engines, it requires someone to be registered and logged into the service and is usually customized for that individual user. Her content, her friends, her last move, her family’s finances. 

Many Web 2.0 businesses do work with Affiliate programs, whether on a one off basis or via an affiliate network. To the extent that the applicaiton they offer leads naturally to transactions by their users this can be a natural and productive fit – and indeed many of the affiliate networks offer some degree of hooks into their systems which web applications can utilize. However this is not a good match for all applications. 

What I do not see, or at least haven’t seen often, are ad network designed to accomodate the needs of really dynamic, rich applications. Networks which accept API calls in place of embedded Javascript, and which accept with that API call information about the user – or better yet group of users – to use to customize and target the ads to be shown.

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