An ad tech firm says it's helping publishers like Bloomberg and Vox Media punch back at Google and Facebook — by stealing a tactic from Facebook

  • The ad tech firm Polar says it’s built a solution to help struggling online publishers by beating Facebook at its own game.
  • It built tech that uses an advertiser’s social creative for ads on publisher pages, and says they outperform traditional banner ads and Facebook itself.
  • The hope is that the success of these ads will get advertisers to shift some of their spending from Google and Facebook, which have been hoovering up digital ad dollars, to the publishers.
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Big media companies are struggling for their survival as Google and Facebook gobble up most of the digital advertising pie.

Polar, an ad tech company, says part of the problem is that thead creative on Facebook is just way better than standard web ads because they’re so visual and interactive. So it built a format called Social Display, which basically takes an advertiser’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter creative and repurposes it for web ads, and it says they perform better than publisher’s traditional ads and Facebook itself.

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Polar made the tech available to the rest of its publisher clients starting this year after an exclusivity period with News Corp and Verizon Media.

Since then, 120 Polar clients including Bloomberg, Vox Media, and NBCUniversal have sold the product to 1,500 advertisers across 2,500 campaigns, said Kunal Gupta, CEO of Polar.

  • The pitch to publishers is that these ads can solve banner blindness and make their display ads more compelling to users, and hence, advertisers.
  • For advertisers, the pitch is that they can create these ads with no extra work or cost to their Facebook ads.

“Banner ads have been ignored by users but also by advertisers — they haven’t invested in the format,” Gupta said. “The advertisers love the idea of, you build it once and reuse it. So we engineered a solution where the advertiser doesn’t have to spend more money.”

Polar says its ad format outperforms old-fashioned banner ads

Polar says that across those 2,500 campaigns, the engagement rate — 0.6% — is far higher than that of standard banner ads. (The rates vary by industry, but Google has estimated click-through rates for banner ads to be as low as an abysmal 0.05%.)

Polar also says its Social Display ads have an average view time of 9 seconds — compared to the 1.7 seconds Facebooksays its users spend with a piece of content on mobile and 2.5 seconds on desktop.

Gupta hopes results like that will get advertisers to shift some of their Facebook ad budgets to publishers.

Social Display is a “significant opportunity” to shift back some of the ads going to social platforms, according to Steve Sottile, president for North America at social video ad platform Unruly, whose parent News Corp helped develop the ad format.

Mike Rucker, creative director of NBC News Brand Studio at NBCUniversal, said users are interacting with the ads far more often than they are with standard display ads. He speculated that’s because people scroll more slowly on NBCU’s sites than they do on social media and the social-like format stands out.

“There’s no denying the big dogs are getting more of the pie, so there’s a growing sense of urgency for brands in how to capture attention and for publishers, to retain and reclaim those dollars,” he said.

Social Display ads don’t solve other publisher problems, though

It’s tempting to think old-media companies could thrive by beating Facebook at its own game. But there are other obstacles keeping publishers from shaking loose advertising from Facebook.

  • Even if the ads perform well, publishers can’t compete with Facebook on scale, audience, and targeting.
  • The Social Display ads are suited to advertisers that need to drive awareness but less so to performance-focused marketers.
  • Publishers have to fight inertia from ad agencies and marketers who are entrenched in habitual ways of buying media.
  • Publishers also might have to deal with turf wars between competing agency teams that might both lay claim to buying such ads.
  • Plus, there could be resistance from agency staffers who make banner ads and could find themselves displaced by the new ad format.

Marcus Witte, SVP of business practices at Cadreon, IPG Mediabrand’s ad tech unit, said Social Display is an easy way for advertisers to extend their social campaigns, and the units perform well, but they’re limited to the number of publishers running them. “You can’t get millions of impressions,” he said.

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