What Is an Ad Network? Definition, Types, and Examples



“An ad network is defined as a mediator between publishers and advertisers, to curate a large repository of ad inventory from publishers and sell it to advertisers.”

With digital ads comprising roughly half of the world’s total advertising spends, it is becoming the go-to marketing medium for advertisers. An ad network facilitates this process by acting as a mediator between publishers and advertisers. Let’s understand what an ad network is, the different kinds of ad networks, display ads vs. native ads, and the best ad networks in the market.

Table of Contents

What Is an Ad Network?
How Do Ad Networks Work?
Ad Units: Display Ads vs. Native Ads
Why Use an Ad Network?
Ad Network Pricing Options and Formats
Choosing an Ad Network – Features to Look for
Top 3 Ad Networks

What Is an Ad Network?

An ad network is a technology platform that mediates the sales of ad inventory between publishers and advertisers. It is a term used exclusively for digital media and online ads. You can perceive an ad network as a broker of sorts, collecting an enormous volume of impressions from publishers and then putting them up for sale to advertisers.

An ad network is part of advertising technology or adtech that’s widely used in today’s digital media trading market. Most publishers putting up their ad space for sale, look for ad networks to secure buyers. Similarly, advertisers visit ad networks to find the most suitable inventory for their needs.

Ad networks have been around since the ‘90s as the dotcom boom led to a rapid rise in the number of sites and digital publishers in the digital world. These publishers were looking for a convenient way to increase inventory demand and ad revenues; with digital marketing becoming increasingly popular, advertisers were looking for a way to secure digital ad spaces on several websites. The ad network initially would sell the unsold ad inventory at a lower price than a publisher’s direct sales. However, that trend has seen a change in today’s hyper-competitive world.

Most ad networks are now looking to offer advertisers premium inventory, at higher prices than the publisher’s original quote. These networks handpick premium inventory by top-tier publishers, which is then sold to advertisers at a marked-up rate. Advertisers who agree to pay end up with the most optimum engagement spaces for their ads.

Ad networks bring together impressions from multiple publishers and sell them to advertisers. How does it do this? And, what are the different types of ad networks? Let’s find out.

Learn More: What Is an Ad Exchange? Definition, Functioning, Types, and ExamplesOpens a new window

How Do Ad Networks Work?

Ad networks make it extremely convenient for advertisers and publishers to interact with each other and carry out a meaningful transaction. But how exactly do they work?

1. First, the network aggregates a growing list of publishers who have unsold inventory that they are willing to sell to buyers, depending on which buyer is willing to pay more.

2. Advertisers who are looking to buy inventory, create a campaign with their requirements. They can set up the campaigns directly using an ad network’s campaign-management panel.

3. The ad network meanwhile sets up packages to target buyers, based on the publishers that are part of the network.

4. The advertiser’s campaign contains details about the target audience, budget, frequency caps, and much more, whereas, on the side of the publisher, they install the ad-network ad tags on their site.

5. When a match between an advertiser’s demand and publisher’s supply is made, the ad details that were safely stored on the network are sent over to the publisher, when called upon.

This explains the traditional model of an ad network – but with the evolution of technology, this has evolved to a great extent. Today, there are dynamic marketplaces like Supply Side Platform (SSP) and Demand Side Platform (DSP) that are primary enablers in the digital advertising space. More publishers are now using multiple ad networks to sell inventory.

Ad Units: Display Ads vs. Native Ads

Now that you have the answers to what an ad network is and how it works, let’s look at the different ad units for advertisers to choose from. There are primarily two kinds of ads to choose from – display ads and native ads.

Display ads are the ones that clearly stand out on a page as a hard sell. They are mostly placed right on the top of the page as banner ads, which means they necessarily look like a banner with the hyperlinked, image-based ad shaped as a rectangular strip.

On the other hand, native ads are ads that appear as part of the design and flow of the webpage they are displayed on. They are more subtle and have a more organic selling approach.

Here is an example of a display and native ad:

Screenshot of a MarTech Advisor Article with a display ad above and a native ad below

If we compare these native and display ads, they both come with their set of pros and cons. Display ads usually have low click-through rates – just 0.05% across all formats and platforms, but they are well suited to increase brand awareness and intent to purchase. While native ads do catch the eye of viewers because of its editorial look and feel, a display ad might be more effective in some cases because it stands out.

Why Use an Ad Network?

Representation of the Benefits of an Ad Network

1. Wider range of options

For both publishers and advertisers, the range of options that they have access to is multiplied when they choose to buy or sell through an ad network. The auction mechanism in place ensures that sellers secure the highest paying buyer for their inventory and advertisers are matched with premium inventory, which is in sync with their purchasing power.

2. Automatically matched with premium impressions

The process of looking for inventory that meets your demands as an advertiser can be tedious and cumbersome. An ad network takes on the responsibility of doing that for you; it looks through the impressions and packages that it has aggregated from top-tier publishers, and ensures that you have access to premium inventory.

3. Increased ad reach and instant money

There’s something for everyone on an ad network. Advertisers are promised high ROI, considering they are matched with premium packages by the network. On the other hand, publishers can generate immediate value through ad networks by putting up their inventory on sale, as soon as they have set up a webpage.

Learn More: Ad Network vs. Ad Exchange: Key Differences and SimilaritiesOpens a new window

Ad Network Pricing Options and Formats

Ad networks today are a staple for all types of digital inventory, including mobile and video – but the pricing options for different formats generally vary. When it comes to pricing, some packages are offered at a fixed rate while others come at an auction basis. The latter uses a Real-Time Bidding RTB) technology to match the impressions with the highest bidder. Some of the options you could consider are:

Cost per thousand impressions (CPM)Opens a new window
Viewable CPM (vCPM)
Cost-per-click (CPC)Opens a new window
Cost-per-view for video (CPV)
Formats sold by ad networks can range from basic native and display ads to video ads, in-image ads, content recommendations, and in-text ads.

Choosing an Ad Network – Features to Look for

Representation of the Features of an Ad Network

Choosing an ad network can be a pretty daunting task. The options are endless, and it can get overwhelming at times. Here’s a quick checklist for you to help you pick the ad network that is best suited to your needs:

1. The quality of inventory

Different ad networks are compatible with different kinds of inventory. While some offer premium inventory collected from top-tier publishers, others simply sell unsold inventory. Before choosing an ad network, make sure to identify the quality of the inventory that is being offered.

2. The size of the Ad network

It’s crucial to consider the size of the ad network that you are picking for yourself, as it will be responsible for a steady flow of customers from inorganic (paid) sources. As Galina Grigoreva, Head of Marketing at Clickadu.com, said “The ad network’s size matters, since it has got to be a consistent traffic source. The more traffic it can deliver, the more you’ll get. “ROI is crucial in affiliate marketing. Once it gets to about 15%, your traffic has been converted.”

In affiliate marketing, you pay a publisher to showcase your display/banner/native ad content. For example, a hotel chain might want to embed ad content on travel blogs, paying a commission whenever there is a click-through on the ad. Therefore, the more traffic the ad network generates, the higher is your return from the ad campaign investment.

3. Audience targeting capabilities

As an advertiser, you need to know who your target audience is while setting up your campaign. Considering different ad networks support different targeting options, you need to have clarity about each platform’s requirements before picking an ad network.

4. The different formats available

As different ad networks offer different formats, you might want to advertise with a simple banner ad or an animated GIF. Thus, while choosing the network that caters to your format needs, always consider the options available on that network.

5. Interface and reliability

This is among the top features to look for when choosing an ad network. Some might require manual, code-based integrations while others are purely plug-and-play. Modern ad networks could also be hosted on the cloud, raising questions of service availability. In case your ad network goes down, it could lead to major interruptions to business – so make sure to embed your service availability requires as part of the SLAs.

Finally, the interface should be clean, easy to use, and data-rich, to equip your marketing team with all the critical performance data, without tedious customizations.

Learn More: What Is Programmatic Advertising? Definition, Types, Channel, and AdvantagesOpens a new window

Top 3 Ad Networks

Representation of the Top 3 Ad Networks

1. PropellerAds

Propeller Ads has received incredible reviews from most users. It deals exclusively with pop traffic. Pop traffic is a display ad methodology that generates traffic via websites dealing with non-category specific content (such as Buzzfeed). Brands such as Netflix that are targeting a massive audience, cutting across demographic barriers, have successfully used pop traffic.

Propeller Ads has been adjudged a “trusted traffic source” on Voluum for some time now. With its pricing models based on CPM and SmartCPA, as well as a wide range of options to choose from, Propeller Ads one of the best ad networks right now.

2. AdSense

In many ways, AdSense is the oldest ad network available. The concept of an ad network was championed by DoubleClick in 1996, and after Google bought DoubleClick in 2007 for $3.1 billion, it became DoubleClick for Publishers (DFP), a premium network of publishers for the tech giant. Google AdSense, which in 2007 was just four years old, gradually took over as the world’s biggest ad network. In 2015, earnings from AdSense was $15 billion, which represents around 23% of Google’s revenue.

Google AdSense allows publishers that are part of the Google Network of content sites to advertise using this network. The ads can be published in various formats and have a range of targeting options. With Google’s reputation and highly sophisticated technology driving its popularity, there is no stopping the rise of this ad network.

3. Adcash

Adcash is a DSP that focuses on mainstream traffic. It is both a managed-only platform and a self-managed platform. The former provides all users with a personal account manager who helps them out with everything, while the latter allows users to set up everything by themselves. With a smooth user interface and easy to navigate structure, it is one of the most user-friendly ad networks in the market.

Key Takeaways

A clear understanding of what an ad network is and how it can help your display, native, and banner advertising campaigns, is critical for markers. It lets you choose from a range of ad formats, making their management and monitoring that much easier. Indeed, it can be extremely challenging to track your spends on display ads, native ads, and other advertising formats, without a robust ad network.

After going through this primer, we hope you have a much clearer picture of what ad networks are and how they function. You can now easily choose an ad network; remember to investigate the inventory quality and network size first, and then go deeper as your progress.

So, are you choosing the best ad network for you? Tell us about your experience and recommendations on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. We would love to hear from you!