Revenue Optimization

Direct Ad Sales: How (and Why) to Sell Your Ad Inventory Directly

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Before we get into this, let’s make one thing clear: Direct ad selling is NOT just for big league publishers. Any publisher with original content and human audience can do it.

As concerns about brand-safety and advertising fraud steer advertisers away from programmatic, enterprising publishers have a lot of leverage to pitch their ad space directly to advertisers.

WSJ promoting its ad space on

Most publishers depend on ad networks to bring a wide pool of advertisers to buy their inventory. In return, networks take a revenue share (for instance, Google AdSense keeps 32% of the money advertisers pay to appear on your site) or fixed price fee (as charged by Amazon Transparent Ad Marketplace).

There’s no denying the scale of automated (aka 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.

So then why do it?

The Upside to Direct Ad Sales

Here are a few reasons you might want to consider selling your ad inventory directly.

> (Significantly) More Revenue

Ad networks/exchanges are essentially middlemen that match advertisers to ad inventory, facilitating its sale and purchase.

Now, they take a cut out off the ad spend (from advertisers) as well as revenue (from publishers) for this service. Publishers may never know how much advertisers are actually paying for their inventory since most networks take their share out of ad spend before reporting the prices back to them. This is why The Guardian sued ad tech company Rubicon Project earlier this year—”lack of transparency” in reporting the actual price paid by the advertiser for Guardian’s inventory.

Cutting the ad networks out means publishers get to keep the entire share of revenue to themselves, but it’s not just about keeping the whole pie: Publishers of any scale can get as much as 5x the amount with direct sales, for the same inventory sold programmatically.

Keep in mind that even the biggest brand-name publishers reserve only the choicest, premium-quality inventory for direct sales. This allows them to demand exponentially higher rates for this ad space from advertisers. You’d also do well to silo your ad inventory into stacks, make the best impressions unattainable on ad networks, 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.

This is because many demand sources (i.e., ad networks/exchanges) engage in arbitrage by packaging and reselling inventory multiple times, leading 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 creates a situation where bad actors have multiple openings to inject malware-laden impressions into the slot, 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 vet campaign creatives beforehand. This lets you cash in on contextual relevance, ensuring that ads don’t clash with your site’s experience.

All of this sounds great. In practice, it takes considerable time and resources to sell ad space on your website without networks or exchanges automating the process for you. That’s why it’s not a decision to be made lightly.

Consider this Before Beginning Direct Ad Sales

Ask yourself the following questions, and try to answer as objectively as possible:

> Is your inventory worth something?

This relates to content and traffic quality, of course. But more importantly, it’s about audience segments (i.e., a sizable group of visitors with a defined common interest) that advertisers would love to reach through your website.

We have previously covered what networks want from publishers’ inventory and there’s no reason to expect advertisers to be any less picky. Valuable audience segments can get you top dollar for your inventory. For instance:

The closer your visitors are to the bottom of a marketing / sales funnel, the more valuable they are to advertisers. Product or price-comparison websites (aka, shopbots) are almost always in demand for precisely this reason.

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

> Are there active advertisers in your website’s niche?

Remember this rephrasing of Rule 34 of the Internet: If you have engaging content, you have advertisers willing to market related products next to it. There are no exceptions, no matter how niche said content may be.

It’s your job to find those advertisers. That’s the job networks automated for you.

Take a look at your website content and audience: Can you think of advertisers or brands who’d find the content brand-safe and want to advertise to your audience? If the answer is a yes, consider another point crossed off your list.

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

This is, effectively, the only thing keeping smaller publishers from making direct advertising sales. There’s no denying that a.) it takes time to find advertisers and directly sell a campaign, and b.) it takes countless hours of effort to execute said campaign. You’ll need dedicated resources to handle sales and ad ops on your domain to keep the ship sailing smoothly.

If you answered ‘yes’ to all the questions above, it’s definitely worth your while to sell ads directly on your website.

What You’ll Need

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

> Media Kit

The page that presents your audience data to potential advertisers and tells them about your capabilities as media-seller (aka publisher). Make it factual, but presentable. Whether or not to make it publicly accessible is up to you. For inspiration, here’s a shot of The Guardian’s mediakit:

The more insight you have on your audience, the better your appeal to advertisers.

> Rate Card

Advertisers who’ve accepted your direct sales pitch will want to check out your rates. A rate card is a simple document listing the prices you’ll charge to run advertisements on your site/group of sites based on ad types (leaderboards, skyscrapers, site-takeovers, etc.), dimensions, platform (desktop or mobile), etc. You can also add other digital marketing offerings: emails, sponsored content, social media promotion, for instance. The level of detail is up to you.

Here’s a screen grab from The Guardian rate-card:

There’s no need for decorative jazz – just make it a clean and straightforward spreadsheet. Use MS Excel or similar application.

> Spec Sheet

Another spreadsheet document, this time with a set of technical ‘terms and conditions’ for your advertisers to follow. Spec sheet will contain details along the lines of acceptable ad creatives (file sizes and formats, acceptable language and imagery), third-party ad tag acceptability, flash or rich-media requirements, audio, and so on. For inspiration, you can download one of Wall Street Journal’s spec sheets.

Finding Advertisers

Now that you’ve got everything in order, it’s time to find advertisers and get them to buy your inventory. This is the most difficult, disheartening part of direct ad sales.

  • Direct Campaigns: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

As an experiment, block an advertiser from buying/bidding on impressions on your website via an ad network and then try selling those impressions directly to this advertiser.

Direct selling is great, but it’s also risky if you’re just starting out. Manage your expectations and remember that even the biggest publishers rely on header bidding to get networks/exchanges to fill the unsold inventory.