For Clues to Smart Online Media Buys, Keep an Eye on Online Publishers

In an era when every marketing dollar counts, online marketers are always looking for the magic bullet in online media buys. Smaller marketers in particular need to make their ad investment work really hard, and choosing the right media is a large part of the equation.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to available media, the “80/20 rule” applies. Over 80 percent of the online ad market in the U.S. is owned by just five publishers: AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. That doesn’t make the “Big Five” the only game in town, however. If a marketer knows his or her audience well, it’s wise to research the online market to determine which specialized online publishers produce content that targets that audience.

In fact, watching what online publishers are doing – how they are changing their ad offerings to be more competitive – could provide a marketer with valuable guidance that pays off in smarter media buys.

Big Changes are Coming in the Online Ad World

A recent article by online media expert Jonathan Gardner for iMedia Connection addresses some of the big changes coming in the online ad world from the perspective of the online publisher. Gardner writes that online publishers are facing increasing pressures from real-time bidding and ad exchanges which, he says, has “more than doubled in 2011, building fears of channel conflict and depressed cost-per-thousands (CPMs).”

One trend, suggests Gardner, is towards publishers offering “ultra-relevant non-intrusive ad units – such as in-text, in-image, and dynamic display – that actually enhance the user’s experience by providing contextually relevant and consistently useful brand advertising.” To compete with the “Big Five” referenced above, publishers will need to expand into new territory and form new network relationships – which could mean new ad opportunities for marketers as well.

One of the biggest buzzwords in the ad world these days is content – and Gardner says “the lines are blurring between ads and content.” In the days of print, what used to be called an “advertorial” (advertising disguised as editorial content) is now increasingly common in online advertising. Chances are opportunities already exist for marketers to take advantage of advertising that looks and feels more like content than an ad.

Social Media and Mobile are Affecting the Ad Landscape

Of course, social media is changing the publisher’s business model. “Publishers need to embrace data and realize that social referral (mostly via Facebook) is overtaking search as a traffic source for major sites,” says Gardner. Indeed, as more publishers understand the impact of social media, the marketer who can fully integrate Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other social media with online advertising will have a distinct advantage.

Publishers are also starting to recognize that they must adopt mobile strategies; in fact, says Gardner, “every publisher needs to put multi-screen strategies at the center of their business.” This suggests to the marketer that there will be many more ad buys available that involve diverse devices and apps as publishers adapt to the always-on, everywhere content world. Gardner points to The Wall Street Journal as an example of an online publisher who has leveraged the iPad to allow “brands to experiment with completely new user experiences.”

With regard to The Journal’s iPad format, Gardner quotes media analyst Ken Doctor:

“These ads grab the potential of the tablet and run with it — joyously. They move beyond what we’ve known as ‘advertising’ and sprint into a new field of commercial conversation. These aren’t ads that simply take you away to a separate brand page when you touch it. They offer more useful information, within the app. They are the fruit of The Journal‘s partnering with top agencies and advertisers to build applications that take advantage of the tablet. They begin to understand what the target audience wants beyond being ‘sold.’ This is information-as-advertising, advertising as a gateway to connection beyond simple pitch and simple impression. Brands are important here, but their ability to tempt engagement is the key.”

It’s a Buyer’s Market… Kind Of

The savvy online marketer can take advantage of the fluctuation in the ad market by striving for deals and incentives from smaller publishers, who are anxious to acquire new advertisers and potentially lock them in for the long term. Ad networks also might offer marketers greater efficiencies. In a sense, at least with smaller publishers and networks, online advertising could turn out to be a buyer’s market this year.

On the other hand, the dominance of Facebook and Google are unlikely to make them advertising bargains. The same can be said of other fast-growing ad channels such as Twitter and YouTube.

Marketers would do well, though, to keep a watchful eye on where online publishers are headed. Their actions will in large part be in response to changing market conditions.

About Barry Silverstein

Barry Silverstein is a freelance writer/marketing consultant. In addition to writing for ReveNews, he is a contributing writer to, the world’s leading online branding forum. He is the author of three marketing books, The Breakaway Brand (co-author, McGraw-Hill, 2005), Business-to-Business Internet Marketing (Maximum Press, 2003) and Internet Marketing for Technology Companies (Maximum Press, 2003). Barry ran his own Internet and direct marketing agency for twenty years. You can find Barry on Twitter @bdsilv.

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