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Marketers: Do You Know Where Your Ads Are?

You paid for prominent placement on well-known websites. Are you sure that's what you're getting?

I recently wrote about what marketers need to know regarding Twitter's IPO. Until you know the specifics of how any advertising medium works, you are at the mercy of whatever a company may decide to do, whether it works for your company or not.

Twitter may be a special case, but there is a much bigger set of ad outlets that may already affect your marketing campaigns in ways you didn't know. Digital media blog Digiday pointed this out recently by looking at when ads go rogue.

The Problem With Ad Networks

The problem for marketers comes from how some big brand sites handle their advertising. Or, as Digiday explains, how they handle the advertising of smaller affiliated sites in addition to their own. You might call it syndication or ad networks, but the underlying concept is the same. Big brands pull together large collections of advertising inventory, including their own and that of others, and sell ad space in the collection.

It only takes a little thought to realize the market dynamics. Online advertising, when sold by impressions, brings abysmally low rates. One of the obvious ways to increase revenue is to expand the number of people who can see or respond to a given advertisement. In a way, this is like when website owners crowd their pages with ads. Expose your audience to a growing number of individual ads simultaneously and you've effectively increased the top per-page ad rate you can get.

Another way to achieve this scale is to expand the number of places an ad could run under your auspices. Here's how Digiday explains an example of what an advertiser found when looking to appear on

One media agency recently purchased what it thought was video inventory on Condé Nast-owned property, for example, but was surprised to see its client's ads suddenly popping up on long-tail, low-quality sites, which is little more than an ad farm. The site is rarely updated and when it is, it's populated with embedded videos or in some cases single-sentence "articles." Its homepage features content published in 2011. It drops over 40 cookies from a wide range of ad tech providers. Wired it is not.

Condé Nast has its Entertainment Network as well as syndication partners. What happened in this case, according to Digiday, is that it placed the ad in question on, even though the advertisers allegedly didn't want the ad to appear anywhere other than

Condé Nast told Digiday that the placement on the obscure site was a mistake and that it now has blocked TechTickleTV from its entertainment network. Uh, OK, but that seems really hard to believe. Either a site is part of the company's network or not. That a given site is shouldn't come as a surprise.

If the issue isn't one of outright partnership, it may be one of the incredibly prolific and complex chains of ad sales relationships. One group dovetails into another that, in turn, reps the first. That's a problem. Not only may your ad show up in places where you'd rather it not be, but you could get charged heavier-weight rates for light-weight results.

In advertising, caveat emptor. Not only should the buyer beware, but it should carefully evaluate every claim from advertising venues. Do you get the types of readers, and only them, that you want, or are your investments lacking?

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Oct 11, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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