Generating Revenue: Ad Networks – What they Want. What they Offer.

By Julia Casale-Amorim (French)

So, you’re an online content producer. That’s great! You’ve worked hard and churned out some fantastic work. They have built a following and now have a valuable audience of web users who frequent your site. What can you do to capitalize on those efforts? How do you take your content and user base and turn them into a revenue stream? A fresh, ever-growing base of content is vital to maintaining and growing your audience. To do that, you need reliable income. Where is that income going to come from?

Akin to television, radio and print media, advertising is a key source of revenue for online content producers. But you’re in the business of production, not advertising sales. Moreover, you’re an artist, starved for time and money. How are you going to find advertisers, sell your media and handle all the technical aspects of an ad-supported operation? Where are you going to get the technology required to manage the ad operations process, target your customers’ ads, and provide the necessary reporting and invoicing? Sound daunting? Sound expensive? Well, it is, if you tried to do it all yourself. Here’s where the convenience and practicality of an ad network comes into play.

What is an ad network?

In simple terms, an ad network facilitates the relationship between advertisers and web publishers by connecting available advertising inventory across multiple websites with paid advertising campaigns.

Ad networks are organizations that match publishers (that’s you – Content Creators/Producers) who want to place ads on their websites as a means to generate revenue, with advertisers who want to expose their ads to users online.

Ad networks are charged with the responsibility of representing advertising space for a group of websites for the purpose of maximizing revenue and minimizing administrative costs through aggregation. The role of an ad network is to transact, serve, track and report the distribution of creative from advertisers to publishers using efficient, interactive, and optimized delivery.

An ad network performs two key functions:

  1. Ad networks supply online advertising inventory to advertisers, facilitating the delivery of ads to their target audiences online.
  2. Ad networks supply publishers with paid ads to fill their available online inventory.

So those are the basics, the Reader’s Digest version, but now let’s answer some of your burning questions:

How do ad networks work with content producers?

Most ad networks offer a turnkey solution that requires very little work on the part of content producers to launch their advertising program.

If your website has ad space built-in, i.e. your layout is formatted to accommodate the typical display ad formats or text links, then getting started with an ad network is as simple as getting accepted to the network and then incorporating their ad codes into the pages of your website.

How do I differentiate between ad networks? Which ad network is best?

A broad spectrum of options exists. Some specialize in the monetization of niche content and can accept websites with even the smallest of audiences. Others specialize in the monetization of general interest content and may have minimum audience-size requirements. The listing below covers a representative cross-section of the ad network options available to you:

Ad Network Websites

Below are a few common categories for differentiation between Ad Networks.

Ad Networks Acceptance Criteria

These are the baseline requirements for acceptance to the network to which you have selected. There are no standards for acceptance criteria and some vendors have limited or no criteria for acceptance. The most common criteria categories include:

  • Website traffic – When minimums for website traffic are stipulated, they most commonly fall somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 unique monthly visitors
  • Traffic source – Networks require that the traffic to your website be natural and authentic, i.e. not generated through the use of artificial tactics including unsolicited bulk commercial emailings, instant messenger postings, listings on newsgroups, etc.
  • Content quality – In general, ad networks will not accept websites that contain or link to content related to anything that could be considered adult/suggestive, profane or illegal
  • Production quality – Easy to navigate, uncluttered sites that load quickly and that are well laid out will rank highest in ad network application reviews
  • Advertising inventory – This refers to the selection of ad units supported by your site (e.g. banner sizes, text links, etc.), the number of ad units per page (e.g. a few well positioned high impact ads or a site cluttered with advertising), and the positioning of ads on each page (e.g. above or below the fold, wrapped in content, etc.)

Advertiser Selection and Publisher Control

The roster of advertisers can change dramatically from one network to another, ranging from small, local advertisers (e.g. small web-based businesses, mom and pop shops), to well-known international brands (e.g. Bell, BMO, GM, UPS, WestJet).

The degree of control publishers have over the ads delivered to their websites depends largely on the technology used by the network with whom they are partnered. Common publisher ad controls include:

  • Content group: restrict the content theme of ads delivered to your site (e.g. alcohol)
  • Advertiser: restrict the advertisers eligible to place ads on your site
  • Campaign: review individual campaigns to determine their eligibility for delivery to your site

Publisher control over the advertiser and ad selection is especially important for Producers of Kids/Family content that might what to avoid allowing inappropriate messaging on their websites.

Revenue Model and Payment

Most ad networks operate on a revenue-share basis, where the fee advertisers pay to place ads on your website is split between you (the publisher) and the ad network. The split can range anywhere from 40% to 70% (to the publisher).

There are three standard payment models:

  • CPM (cost per thousand impressions): publishers are paid for every thousand ad impressions delivered
  • CPC (cost per click): publishers are paid a dollar value for every ad click delivered
  • CPA (cost per action): publishers are paid for every action (e.g. sales lead, online purchase) delivered

The CP(x) value you can earn depends on many factors, including the ad unit(s) you support (i.e. text link, banner, rectangle, pop under) the type of content on your site and the audience you attract (and the corresponding advertiser demand for that content/audience), and the performance of advertising placed on your site (e.g. the number of clicks or actions generated).

Payment cycles can vary greatly from one network to the next. Net 30 days is considered standard.

Ad networks provide publishers with a web-based account interface that enables them to track their daily earnings and other statistics related to ad delivery. Through the interface, you should be able to specify details such as payment method and manage your account information.

What are the key benefits of working with an ad network?

In a sentence: a convenient, sensible, and easy to implement revenue stream. Generally speaking, it costs you nothing to partner with an ad network and once you’re up and running, payment is guaranteed. The network does all of the work for you and bears all of the risk. They find the advertisers, manage the relationships, invest in the technology, setup the campaigns, do all of the targeting, tracking and bill collecting. All you do is incorporate the necessary ad codes into your website and then focus on what you do best: producing current, relevant and interesting content.

Of course, keeping track of your success depends on the service level you have agreed to. Service levels can range from full account service to self service. Self service is considered the standard model in the ad network space. Once a website is approved the network and the applicable ad codes have been incorporated, there is virtually no work required on the part of the publisher to earn revenue. Some networks offer a hybrid approach where large publishers with significant levels of traffic (i.e. >100,000 unique monthly visitors) receive full account service while smaller publishers with more straightforward needs are self-serviced.

What are some of the challenges of working with an ad network?

Probably one of the biggest challenges to working with a network is deciding on the one that is best suited to satisfy your needs. No two networks are created equally; each has its own unique mix of technology, advertisers, payment and tools/resources. Some work better with niche content, while others are more effective at monetizing broad mass appeal content. Some specialize in monetizing the short tail (i.e. homepage/first or early impressions), while others do better in the long tail space. See below for some tips on selecting the right network for your website.

As noted above, networks service the majority of their publishers by automated means and by supplying a variety of self-service tools. Support inquiries are typically handled via email. It is not standard to get a direct line to support personnel (unless of course you are a full-service account). This can be especially frustrating for publishers who are new to the ad network space and who require introductory guidance and advice. Luckily, there are many reputable and highly informative online resources (see list below) that publishers can leverage to help supplement the self-service approach. Keep in mind that exclusivity is rare in today’s ad network landscape. Publishers are free to partner with any number of ad networks and can stop delivering a network’s ads at any time. Most ad network/publisher relationships are open and flexible and do not involve contractual delivery obligations from either the network or the publisher. This is not to say that such obligations do not exist. As with any contract, always read the fine print and know what you’re getting involved in ahead of time.

How do I select the right ad network?

Evaluate your audience and content specialty first. If your site covers a focused, niche category and your audience is relatively small, i.e. under 10,000 unique monthly visitors, then you will have greater success with a contextual or keyword based ad network with a massive advertiser roster.

On the flip side, if your site attracts the online population at large and has a relatively large user base, then you’re best to start with a horizontal web display network. For sites that fall in between these two extremes, you may want to experiment with a few different options to find the right fit for your audience and content. For example, if you’re a mid-large sized website with a vertical content focus, you may want to test a combination of vertical and horizontal networks before making a determination.

Whomever you select as your primary partner, to monetize 100% of your inventory you will likely need to partner with more than one provider. It’s important to keep in mind that secondary providers receive secondary inventory on your site. If you plan to test more than one vendor, make sure you test them in identical setups, otherwise the results will not be representative and you may undervalue

Where can I go for more information on ad networks?

There is a great selection of useful online resources that cover the topic of working with ad networks to monetize web content, some of which are listed below. Another great way to get up to speed on your options is to review the offerings presented by a cross-section of different networks (listed above). A quick visit to their websites will cover information on their differentiators, acceptance criteria and application protocols.

Useful Online Resources

Ad Network Glossary Terms

Available Advertising Inventory

Unsold impressions for each ad unit (e.g. banner ads or text links) available on your website.

Paid Advertising Campaigns

Advertising you allow to run on your website in exchange for payment. Typically, advertisers pay publishers for exposure to their advertising on a CPM (cost per thousand impressions) basis.


The website owner/operator or individual responsible for monetizing the website’s advertising inventory.

Ad Codes

Ad codes are the mechanism by which an ad network delivers advertising to ad space on a publisher’s website.

Contextual (Keyword) Ad Network

Primary means of ad targeting is via keyword matching. Most commonly supports text ads. Work well with low traffic, niche audience publications.

Horizontal Web Display Network

Targets and optimizes the placement of ads using hundreds of different variables. Most commonly supports banner ads. Work well with high traffic, broad audience publications.

Ad Units and Formats

The term ad format refers to the type of ads offered by an ad network, e.g. .gif, Flash, in-banner video, in-stream video, rich media, text, etc., while the term ad unit refers to the dimension of the ad (see chart below):

Ad Unit Dimension (pixels)
Leaderboard 728×90
Big box 300×250
Skyscraper 120×600
Wide skyscraper 160×60

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