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In most contexts, an advertising network is a company that matches companies’ ads to different advertising venues, including websites, magazines, and television spots. Advertising networks are so named because they manage networks of ad placement opportunities. They are not usually networks in their own right.
Advertising networks have long been a staple of the advertising industry. While advertising agencies are usually responsible for coming up with ad campaigns and creating graphics and slogans, networks are the ones tasked with actually placing those ads in such a way that they will catch consumers’ eyes. Much of the science behind an advertising network's success involves studying consumer trends to develop effective ad placement strategies.
At one time, print media was the primary canvas of the advertising network. Most network advertising today happens online. Though the context may have changed, many of the main strategies have remained consistent.
There are three main types of advertising network. First is the vertical network, that is, a clearly delineated list of advertising venues and site placements. Ad networks that use vertical networks can usually identify where each and every ad is placed.
Blind networks work in the opposite way. Advertisers will pay networks a fixed fee for ad placement in a certain number of publications, across a certain number of websites, or for a certain number of days. The specifics of where the ads will be placed is not usually disclosed, however, and is often left up to the discretion of the network.
For advertisers who know the audience they want to reach, targeted marketing may be a better, and more cost-effective, route. Targeted marketing focuses on directing ads to a discrete type of consumer. In print, this usually takes the form of ads placed in specialty trade magazines or on billboards outside of certain kinds of stores. It tends to take on a slightly more nuanced meaning in the Internet space.
Advertising network operators generally coordinate targeted advertising online by tracking Internet traffic and by serving ads to certain web users based on browsing history. Tracking can be both behavioral — that is, triggered by an individual’s click history or purchasing tendencies — or contextual. Contextual ad service depends on the sorts of websites a person typically browses, and the type of content he or she normally reads. This kind of ad may simply feature a certain brand that a person has recently searched or might offer a targeted promotion or deal related to something sold on the page the user is currently visiting. Orchestrated ad serving is a distinctive characteristic of contextual advertising.
One of the biggest differences between the work of print media ad networks and online ad networks is the driving technology. Where an advertising network once had to actually maintain contacts with various publishers, today it maintains the majority of those networks electronically, over what is known as an ad exchange. An ad exchange is a type of computer program that uses algorithms and data from a variety of sources to generate prices and availability for certain types of ads across a portfolio of websites. Person-to-person contacts are increasingly rare.