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Real-Time Bidding: Greasing the Wheels of Digital Advertising

Real-time bidding (RTB) will be a significant factor in fulfilling the promise of online digital advertising, which has been on the cusp of dramatic changes for many years.

RTB, as defined by Parks Associates, describes the automated process of buying and selling online display advertising in real time, and it incorporates enhanced solutions in targeting algorithms and data analytics in order to deliver better targeting, greater control and more granular campaigns.

Given these strong benefits to ad buyers and sellers, RTB is starting to claim more revenues in the online advertising industry, and by 2017, it will account for 34 percent of all online display ad revenues.

Challenges in Online Advertising

Several industry factors will drive this shift to RTB. New technologies have introduced a variety of challenges to advertising companies. Consumers can skip commercials or go completely “over-the-top” in their video viewing, and they are now using multiple screens to consume content. Parks Associates consumer research reports over one-half of U.S. broadband households have a smartphone and nearly one-third have a tablet. All these extra screens make it more difficult to follow consumers and necessitate detailed tracking solutions.

These types of tracking solutions raise privacy concerns, often cited by advocacy groups, which could lead to customer rejection of the online advertising industry as a whole. However, Parks Associates’ report Advertising Strategies on Connected TVs finds 45 percent of U.S. consumers are comfortable with targeted ads based on their TV-viewing habits. Over one-third are comfortable with targeted ads based on their online browsing habits, according to the report Monetization of Multiscreen Video: Content Owner Strategies.

While there are and always will be some consumer segments unwilling to share any details of their buying and browsing habits, many consumers are willing to provide personal details in exchange for something of value.

The more significant challenge has been in matching consumers with the appropriate content and, in some cases, matching consumers with any content. For the past 10 years, companies looking to buy and place online ads on a large scale typically have purchased blocks of ads, usually in groups of 1,000, through ad networks. Agencies pay these ad networks a CPM-based rate to reach audience segments with the understanding that a portion of the online ads will not reach intended consumer targets. The industry considers ad networks as “blind-buys”: Buyers do not have full control over ad placement, so as a result, ads can appear on any website located in the network.

RTB addresses many of these challenges by providing a direct and flexible method of matching consumers to appropriate advertising content.

How Does RTB Work?

RTB is a data-driven buying model through which ad agencies place auction-based bids for individual ad impressions. This process takes place in milliseconds, allowing agencies to adjust their strategies almost immediately based on the performance of individual sites and ad impressions.

When a user visits a website, in addition to serving up HTML code, the Web server delivers an ad tag to an ad server, which ultimately sends the user’s cookie ID to an SSP (supply-side platform) or ad exchange to be auctioned using RTB APIs. Buyers use that ID data to value the ad impression and set their bids. In an RTB environment, ad buyers analyze multiple variables of an ad impression, such as demographics, geography, and publisher attributes. The ad exchange determines the winner, and then the information flow goes back to the ad server to deliver the ad to the user’s browser. This entire process is done automatically, in real time.

RTB offers several key benefits to the buy and sell sides.

Core Benefits of RTB

Ad Buyers – Ad AgenciesAd Sellers – Online Publishers

  • Accurate audience targeting
  • Campaign control and transparency
  • Improved return-on-advertising spend (ROAS)
  • Greater yield optimization
  • Higher value of inventory
  • Incremental revenues for display ads sold outside of direct relationships with buyers

While there are several paths for agencies to take when employing RTB, most use a media buying desk (MBD) that relies on demand-side platform (DSP) technology to access and bid on RTB ad impressions. An MBD is a buy-side platform that consolidates the process of planning, buying, serving and reporting online media campaigns, typically leveraging the technology offered by DSPs. Agencies also compile proprietary audience intelligence profiles through their MBDs, which integrate with third-party DSPs. DSPs connect ad inventory to agencies and measure a campaign’s efficacy against its goals.

Agencies know who they want to contact due to data management platforms (DMPs). DMPs provide audience intelligence across the entire digital ad ecosystem, not just the RTB ad market, containing info on variables such as purchase intentions, household demographics and behavioral patterns. DMPs collect, manage, and evaluate online user information obtained from multiple media sources to identify and create audience segments. They enable the delivery of the right ad unit to the right consumer on the most effective media channel.

The confluence of these elements boosts the overall value of the RTB process for all players, so much that on the supply side, publishers are beginning to release premium inventory to SSPs to capture larger shares of ad budgets processed in RTB markets.

Facebook and Ad Exchanges

In mid-2012, Facebook announced the expansion of its growing display ad business into the RTB marketplace, with several DSPs already testing the Facebook Exchange, or FBX. RTB-enabled ad exchanges aggregate ad impressions across many online channels and connect ad sellers to buyers. Primarily a sell-side service, ad exchanges provide ad inventory details, such as website type, ad unit size, and user geography to ad bidders (e.g., MBDs, DSPs, ad networks). They also manage the entire ad-auction process – receiving the bid, determining the winner and facilitating ad placement.

Within the FBX system, brand advertisers can target Facebook users based on their Web-browsing history, with ads displayed on a Facebook page based on third-party Web browsing habits. It matches users more closely with not just relevant content but with products where they have displayed purchase intention. For example, Facebook Exchange can serve up ads about cheap flights or local auto dealers to a user who has visited a travel site or the Ford home page.

FBX indicates Facebook is getting more aggressive in its advertising methods — and is forging new ways to build revenues. According to comScore, the social network serves approximately one-third of U.S. display ad impressions, so the FBX could open up a large source of ad inventory to the RTB market.

Facebook is competing with other companies in the RTB market, notably Yahoo and Google, which have established their presence in the RTB market through a variety of acquisitions. Yahoo acquired Right Media in 2007, Rubicon Project purchased Fox Audience Network in 2010, and Google followed suit in 2011 with the acquisition of Admeld. [*Correction – Aug. 30, 2012]

Heather Way is a senior research analyst at Parks Associates. Click here for more information on Parks Associates' report Real-time Bidding: The Online Ad Exchange.

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