Online technologies have become an integral part of our lives. The advertising industry is no different. Online advertising has been around for over two decades now, and most of the problems and publishers had from the start have been addressed in one way or another. But there is one piece of technology that remains from the olden days, yet proves its effectiveness time after time. We call it the ad server.
What is an ad server
The ad server definition is simple. It was designed to allow easy management and running of online advertising campaigns.
This AdTech is used by advertisers, publishers, ad networks and ad agencies, and is valued for its ability to instantly pick the most relevant ad at a given time on a given device and then serve it. Moreover, ad serving technology is responsible for collecting and reporting data associated with the ad campaign, which is especially useful for advertisers. By knowing how many impressions and clicks a particular ad received, advertisers can make relevant decisions. These performance insights can give valuable feedback and show what resonates well with the target audience.
While first ad servers date back to as early as 1995, much work has been done to ensure they meet the ever-growing demands of both sides: publishers and advertisers. Initially, targeting parameters were limited, but with time ad servers improved and are now able to process tons of data ensuring effective use of advertising budgets.
Types of ad servers
As we have mentioned ad servers are used by both publishers (first-party ad servers) and advertisers (third-party ad servers). While essentially the same technology is used, the two parties use them differently.
First-party ad servers
Publishers use first-party ad servers to manage ad slots on the webpages, as well as to keep track of what has been sold to advertisers directly (without an intermediary in the form of another AdTech platform).
In the absence of direct campaigns, the ad server acts as a management platform that can help decide which of the currently available options from a third-party - whether directly or indirectly - to serve in their ad slots.
A first-party ad server engages in targeting based on the input targeting parameters, serving the ads, as well as collecting and reporting the data to facilitate analysis.
Moreover, the servers can help with planning. Based on the current campaigns and outcomes, they can help forecast how much and what type of inventory the publisher will have for sale in the future.
Third-Party Ad Servers
Ad servers for advertisers help them track their campaigns. Due to specifics of how the two types of ad server software interact, their functionality is limited compared to first-party ad servers. Third-party (advertisers) ad servers mostly collect campaign data and display particular metrics, such as impressions and clicks.
It is the first-party ad server that is responsible for targeting - the advertisers can merely change the content of an ad campaign or run an A/B test to determine which performs best.
Generally speaking, a third-party ad server aggregates all the campaign information across all platforms used by the advertisers to run campaigns on. It helps measure and verify whether an ad received the agreed number of impressions. Besides, these ad servers grant advertisers control over the collected data - thus they can learn more about the audience.
How does ad serving work
As the Internet started picking up in the early '90s, people inevitably started seeing the potential of online advertising. Consequently, as online resources started growing, they embraced the chance to display ads in return for financial or other compensation from advertisers.
It's no surprise that online ad serving didn't kick off quite as smoothly as it works today. The process was manual and often daunting. As a result, publishers' demand for a better way to manage their campaigns led to the creation of the first-party ad servers. But what are the actual steps taken by the ad server to ensure a satisfactory outcome?
Whenever a user visits a website, the browser sends a request to the publisher's web server for the page's content to be displayed using HTML. In response, the web server returns it and renders the content on the page.
If an ad slot is available, then an ad request is sent to the publisher's ad server to fill it. The latter then chooses an ad campaign based on the information it has about the user.
If a third-party is involved, at this stage, the first-party ad server returns the ad markup with a link to the third-party (advertisers) server. This markup then sends a request to the third-party ad server for the markup (or code) and counts an impression.
As the market expanded, advertisers naturally wanted to monitor the performance of their adverts across different campaigns and have one place to host their ads, so they can be brought up at relevant times - this especially applies to seasonal ad campaigns, which are only run by advertisers during holidays, for example.
How to choose the right ad server?
Most of the top ad server providers cater to the needs of both publishers and advertisers, but there are certain things you need to keep in mind when choosing your ideal solution.
First of all, determine the business goals of your advertising campaign. What capabilities of the ad server would help you reach them?
Consider both short-term and long-term advertising needs. Working with an ad server should be seamless and make your life easier instead of adding problems for the advertisers.
It is a sound idea to prepare a checklist of features and quality expectations according to your requirements and budget. Make sure you separate your must-haves and nice-to-haves into two lists. Also bear in mind your company's technical expertise. Who will be working with the ad server, how easy is it to export reports and analyse them? These factors are crucial for advertisers.
Depending on the content you intend to post, there are different options available to you. Videos are gaining momentum with advertisers, so if you have plans to produce video content (even if not from the word go), it might make sense to go with the ad server that supports VAST or VPAID tags, tracks video-specific metrics, and has video ads waterfall capabilities.
Another type of campaigns is XML advertising. If you are keen on experimenting with those, XML functionality is a must to ensure correct work.
Also think about your traffic. Generally, the more of it the advertisers run through the platform, the lower is the cost per impression. Bear this in mind as some options may offer better deals for your volume. If you choose to gradually build up your online presence and have a limited budget to get started, you may go with one provider and switch later, although generally that is not advised. Therefore it is a good idea to find a partner you feel comfortable working with right from the start.
Often, ad server providers offer self-service or guided live demos of their platforms. Take advantage of this and try to run through one full cycle from creating an ad to monitoring its performance to see how comfortable you are with the workflow. Take your time to explore the functionality available and double-check what is included in the pricing plan that suits your needs. Working with the platform should be intuitive and not require extensive technical expertise. This will save you time in the future when you decide to expand your advertising efforts.
Test the available support as well. How responsive is the ad server's team? Questions may arise initially, so make sure the technical support will be within easy reach when it is needed.