Most publishers depend on ad networks to bring a wide pool of advertisers to buy their inventory. In return, networks take a revenue share (like Google AdSense) or fixed price fee (as charged by Amazon Transparent Ad Marketplace).

There’s no denying the scale of automated (or programmatic) sales, nor the ease of managing them with a host of reporting, monitoring, and optimization tools at hand. Compared to that, selling ads directly is a time-consuming, resource-intensive business full of uncertainty.

Then why choose direct ad sales? Let’s start with the basic question first.

What is Direct Ad Sales?

As the name suggests, direct ad sales is a one-on-one deal between publishers and advertisers, cutting any middleman—ad network, SSP, DSP or any other ad agency.

During the early days of advertising, direct deals were the only way for publishers to make revenue. However, programmatic opened up the global market for publishers to reach out to. Also, for small publishers, it gets easier with programmatic auctions to make money out of their blooming websites.

But there are reasons direct deals survived the way of programmatic. One reason being, direct deals are more personal than programmatic. Next, direct deals can also be automated (as offered by Google Ad Manager) by reducing human intervention and errors, thanks to technological advancement.

Benefits of Direct Ad Sales

Better Ad Revenue

Obviously, revenue has to be the top reason to choose direct selling.

Ad networks/exchanges are essentially middlemen that match advertisers to ad inventory, facilitating its sale and purchase. They take a cut out of the ad spend (from advertisers) as well as revenue (from publishers) for this service. 

After The Guardian sued Rubicon Project because of transparency related to problems, most companies started sharing the percentage share they charge from both parties. This share depends from company to company on their policies.

Eliminating these mediator parties should evidently increase the ad revenue.

Keep in mind that even the biggest media publishers only reserve only a small section (premium quality) of their inventories for direct sales. This allows them to demand high rates for ad space from advertisers. Make sure you have a well organized ad stack and identify premium inventory and sell them directly.

Malware-free Ads

Ads filled with spammy redirects only make your site visitors either bounce, block ads, or both—ultimately damaging your rankings as well as revenue. Programmatic is notorious for facilitating them.

Many demand sources (ad networks or exchanges) engage in arbitrage by packaging and reselling inventory multiple times. This leads to a lengthy chain of redirects before your ad server can locate the source of an ad impression and render it on your website. This created multiple openings for bad actors to inject malware into the system, which could then easily end up on your website.

Going direct-to-advertiser significantly reduces this risk and enables you to serve safe ads on your website.

Creative Control

Direct selling gives you the freedom to evaluate campaign creatives beforehand. This lets you check for contextual relevance and ensures that ads don’t negatively impact your site’s experience.

All of this sounds great. But in practice, it takes considerable time and resources. Since there are no networks and exchanges working on matching the audience and automating the process, the creative review task can take up some significant amount of your time.

All of which pays off at the end when you run a successful direct ad campaign, appreciated by your audience with improved engagement with ads.

Questions to Ask Before Starting With Direct Ad Sales

Is your inventory worth direct campaigns?

Let’s start with traffic. How much monthly traffic do you get? Traffic is directly related to impressions. Hence, this is the first thing an advertiser would check before initiating a campaign. If your current monthly traffic is anything more than 50,000, direct ad sales can benefit you. For the rest of publishers, it is recommended to improve traffic numbers

Next comes, content. Some niches (like finance and medicine) pay better than others, in the advertising world. Similarly, you need to identify your content, check what market is paying to content type. And then go for a direct campaign.

But some publishers deal in multiple content types.

For such publishers, audience segmentation is very important. Basically, identify the audience with common likes and dislikes; show them to advertisers. Not just for direct ad sales, audience segmentation also helps improve revenue coming in via ad network and SSP deals.

Study your visitors and their behavior with Google Analytics, Quantcast, Mixpanel or similar tools to identify audience segments. Then package and pitch them to advertisers.

Are there active advertisers in your website’s niche?

So you have segmented your audience for xyz niche advertisers. But are those advertisers actively running ads?

If there is nobody looking for this audience, then direct ad sales is not the right choice for you. Hence, it is your job to pitch the right audience at the right time.

And if you have a niche website that doesn’t have any ‘active’ advertisers, then you should better stick to programmatic deals till direct ad sales opportunities appear.

Do you have dedicated resources to handle sales and ad ops?

This question stops many small publishers from making direct advertising sales.

Direct selling takes time to find advertisers, engage in communication, and sell a campaign. Next, it takes countless hours of effort to execute the said campaign. Clearly, you would need a dedicated resource to handle sales and ad operations on your domain.

If the answer to above questions is ‘yes’, then let’s discuss how you should proceed with direct selling.

How to Start With Direct Ad Selling?

Aside from a payment method to collect your earnings through, you’ll need:

Media Kit

A media kit is a webpage that presents information related to your traffic and audience. Use numbers and percentages to tell the potential reach of your website. Keep your Media Kit publicly accessible, design it to be presentable, and keep it factual.

The more insight you have on your audience, the better your appeal to advertisers. Here a example of The Guardian’s media kit:

Rate Card

A rate card can be a document or webpage listing the prices of all placements that you offer.

For advertisers who are considering your inventory, a rate card helps them align their budget with your price expectations. You can add all ad units and placements that you wish to put on for direct selling. This not only tells about your prices but also shows all the ad types your website deals in.

There’s no need for decorative jazz – just make it a clean and straightforward spreadsheet. Use MS Excel or similar applications. Here is an example of TIME’s rate card:

Spec Sheet

A spec sheet is another document that should include technical information and ‘terms and conditions’. You can mention the ad creative (size, type, and format) that you follow. It can also include third-party ad tag acceptability, flash or rich-media requirements, and more.

For inspiration, you can download one of Wall Street Journal’s spec sheets.

How to Find Advertisers

Okay, so good traffic and segmented audiences make your website attractive to advertisers. But how would they find you and you find them?

Here are some tips to help you find relevant advertisers for direct ad sales:

  • Outreach and follow-ups: Start by looking up brands/products/services that appear on your or a competitors’ websites programmatically (via ad network or exchange). Reach out to the advertiser or agency decision makers directly to talk about promotion opportunities. Make sure to follow-up.
  • Ask you advertisers to go direct: Look for advertisers already bidding on your inventory and would be a good fit for your direct campaign. Once you have a list of advertisers, reach out to them and pitch.
  • Media Sales services: If you don’t have the staff for outreach but have the budget to spare, try out services that help you get leads for direct ad sales like Winmo, MediaRadar, AdMall, etc.
  • Direct Campaigns: Thalamus.co Marketplace, for instance, is a great, well-moderated resource that lists ongoing and new campaigns put out directly by advertisers or agencies. Check it regularly.

What About the Rest of Inventory?

For the rest of your inventory you have programmatic deals like header bidding, open bidding (exchange bidding), and private marketplaces.

Direct selling is only for high-value and premium parts of your inventory. If you are just starting out, make sure you carefully divide your inventory between direct and programmatic deals. Even the biggest publishers rely on header bidding to get networks/exchanges to fill the rest of their inventories.

Yes, direct selling sounds intriguing, but you can still depend on programmatic deals, if direct selling doesn’t work. And with sophisticated audience matching techniques and ad quality measures, programmatic selling can offer similar performance on your ad campaigns.