The dream of every publisher is that they can launch a successful self-serve advertising platform. The advertiser will put in their credit card, create a campaign, and keep coming back. You won’t need an expensive sales team, could have a minimal ad ops team, and will stop handing 50% of your revenue to ad exchanges, DSPs, and other vendors that sit in-between you and your customers.
This often plays out as a Field of Dreams scenario: if we can build a self-serve interface (or most likely work with a vendor to do it), then the advertisers will come.
It of course never plays out this way, and in a previous article I outlined reasons why self-serve doesn’t work for traditional publishers. That said, it’s not the case that self-serve always fails - the ad platforms of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and so on prove otherwise.
At Adzerk we have had customers build self-serve platforms on top of our APIs, and we have seen both successful and unsuccessful attempts. In this article I am going to outline the key factors that can make self-serve successful, for publishers of any type and size.
Above all, be unique
The most important factor in a successful self-serve platform is offering something truly unique, which advertisers can’t get elsewhere. This includes four key factors that need to differentiate your product: your ad formats, data, scale, and performance.
If you can’t offer a unique product, stop here and convince your team that self-serve isn’t right for you.
If your self-serve platform sells standard banner ad units that are also available through an ad exchange, advertisers just don't have any reason to buy directly from you. Think about it - why would they work with you when they can get it at cheaper rates / more easily through their DSP (where they can also layer on their data)?
So you have to be selling something unique to your platform and which advertisers can’t get in any other way. Take the most successful self-serve ad platforms - Adwords, Facebook, and Amazon - which offer ad formats and targeting that are only available through their interfaces.
1. Native Ad Formats
Without exception, the most successful self-serve ad platforms share one trait: they offer native, user-friendly ads available nowhere else.
Advertisers know that if they want standard banner ads, they can just buy those from their DSP or Adwords. They also know that these ad types generally see low engagement rates. They’re hungry for more engaging, native ad units that go beyond the 300x250 rectangle.
Some great examples of publishers with unique formats include:
On Twitter you can pay to promote a tweet, how much more unique could you get? There’s no other way to sponsor your tweets or reach Twitter’s audience without using their self-serve portal.
On Etsy creators can pay to have their products appear at the top of relevant search results. These sponsored listings are a perfect use case for self-serve since they combine unique formats (the seller's product listing) with valuable targeting (search terms).
Marketplaces have a unique advantage here as the advertiser is already listing their product or service in the marketplace and sometimes already paying for that listing. By offering advertisers the ability to promote their listings, the marketplace is giving them something they can't get anywhere else.
2. Proprietary Data and Targeting
When buying through traditional channels, advertisers can bring their own data, use third-party data, or rely on publisher-given data.
But if I’m a small advertiser looking to promote my mountain biking helmets, I may not have a giant trove of data, and I probably don’t have access to the expensive third-party data providers. I likely don’t have the monthly budget to work directly with a large DSP or ad exchange either.
To advertise then I'm going to focus on self-serve ad platforms that help me target the right people.
This is where Facebook has excelled. Buying un-targeted ads on Facebook, even though they would be a unique format, would be a disaster for almost any advertiser.
Fortunately I can instead go to Facebook and target just people who have identified as mountain bikers, are part of mountain biking groups, or like various mountain biking brands:
Likewise I can go to Reddit’s self-serve portal and target anyone in the r/mountainbiking subreddit.
These unique targeting options drive success. If you’re offering only run-of-site targeting on your product (or basic targeting like geo or gender), what’s the draw?
For your self-serve platform to work, you need proprietary data and targeting options that will drive success for your advertisers.
This data doesn’t need to be user-level info like interests, age, and so on either. It could also be real-time intent actions like search keyword targeting. Google Search Ads didn’t succeed because of demographic or interest targeting, it was because they could target people in real-time as they searched for a relevant phrase.
If you don’t have access to proprietary data or targeting, the only substitute is if you are such a specialized publisher that you don’t need it. For instance, in our example, if you are a site focused on mountain biking you could still be a good target for our hypothetical advertiser.
You will still need to follow the other factors to find success though, because if they can buy your inventory on the exchange, why would they come to you directly?
Scale is of course relative, but if you don’t have enough traffic you won’t become a meaningful source of revenue for an advertiser, and you will fall off their list.
I am a firm believer that most advertisers won’t use more than 5-8 different ad platforms.
Every advertiser is using Google and Facebook, and then a number use Twitter, Snapchat, etc. eCommerce brands may also gravitate toward Amazon, eBay, and so on.
So your scale has to be large enough that you can slide into those last 2-3 spots. Imagine our hypothetical bike helmet advertiser. They already use Google, Facebook, AdRoll, and Twitter. They will most likely spend in another 2-3 places. If they can’t drive any meaningful scale through you, you probably won't make the cut.
As I said earlier, scale is relative. If you are a small publisher focused on mountain bikes, you could still be a good channel for our helmet advertiser. Even if you don’t have a ton of click traffic, it could convert at great rates and drive the same number of purchases as a high-volume, low-value traffic source.
Meanwhile you would never have enough scale to make a difference to a large general purpose advertiser like Proctor and Gamble or Coca-Cola.
The key question to ask yourself is, “Do we have the scale and relevancy required to make that list of 5-8 ad platforms?”
Even with a unique format, scale, and proprietary data, a self-serve platform will fail if it doesn’t deliver performance for the advertiser.
The smaller advertisers who buy through self-serve are more focused on performance than they are on branding, but many self-serve platforms don’t provide the tools that an advertiser needs to gain this performance.
The first place this becomes evident is pricing. You can’t launch a successful self-serve platform with rate card CPM pricing - you need to offer an auction that lets publishers compete against each other. This puts the performance in the hands of the marketer and lets them bid what they need to to see the right performance and keep spending with you ($50 a month is better than nothing).
As an open market, it will also make sure you are getting paid the fair price for your inventory. Self-serve bidding doesn’t mean advertisers will all lower their bids to one cent. If your traffic converts well, advertisers will start outbidding each other, potentially leading to eCPMs above your arbitrary rate card.
The second piece is giving marketers the tools they need to evaluate performance. This includes things like conversion tracking, reporting, and other metrics that can prove the value of your ads.
LinkedIn does an amazing job of this by showing not just impressions and clicks, but also additional engagements like comments, reactions, shares, and new followers.
Of course there are plenty of other components you need to take into account when building a self-serve platform. You need to promote it, support the advertisers, and make sure it can handle the influx of campaigns.
But at the very least, if you can nail the above four factors you are laying the groundwork for a successful self-serve platform.
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