The scarcity of online ad inventory has been greatly exaggerated.
That’s what several digital media strategists told C&E in the wake of a New York Times report that prompted a flurry of interest in the availability of Web video ads down the stretch. Sure, some digital real estate has been staked out, the strategists say, but campaigns still have time and space to get their messages up online.
The Times focused on YouTube pre-roll inventory, which it reported is scarce in certain battlegrounds with less than three weeks to go before the 2014 midterms. Moreover, groups likes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lamented that they couldn’t spend money online in some races even if they wanted to. “We learned last week that you could not buy digital ads in New Hampshire and Alaska,” Scott Reed, a strategist for the business group, told the paper.
That’s not exactly true, according to digital media strategist Keegan Goudiss.
“Scarcity helps make people want things more but it’s a little over blown,” says Goudiss, a partner at the Democratic media firm Revolution Messaging. “There’s so much inventory out there — both video and display — there really isn’t a scarcity.”
YouTube spots in Maine are at a premium and a newspaper banner ad on the Anchorage Daily News will come at an inflated cost, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get your message out digitally.
“They would have gotten a better price if they had started earlier on, but there’s a ton of inventory out there that people are going to be bidding on,” Goudiss says. “We just have to bid higher.”
Even if YouTube’s pre-roll is booked in your geotarget, Goudiss recommended buying broadcast networks that have separate online streaming channels. “There’s a lot of video networks they can work with,” he says.
On the other side of the digital ad equation is Kenny Day, director of platform solutions at BrightRoll, which manages the distribution of digital ads. “We’re the New York Stock Exchange for video ad inventory,” he says, “but also the Bloomberg terminal to buy it.”
If a campaign or consultant needs a million impressions of voters with certain behavioral characteristics, Day gets a call.
The going rate of Cost Per Mille (CPM), which is a thousand impressions, is $16-$20, he says. “I have not seen an exorbitant price spike. Some states run out [of inventory]. There are only so many impressions one can possibly buy in Alaska or Maine – rural battleground states.”
Still, once you get beyond sites like YouTube or Hulu, inventory is widely available. In fact, it could be considered the prime real estate.
“Sixty percent of the population never sees a YouTube video,” he says. “Smaller publishers with loyal followings — that’s where the action is.”
When it comes to online video, Day recommends buying skipable pre-roll as opposed to unstoppable — the kind that don’t let you click through without watching the whole spot.
“On average for political ads, which are geotargeted, we’re seeing 75-80 percent completion rates,” Day says. “We’re seeing high levels of engagement. We think it’s because people haven’t see the messages yet. On TV, they’re tuning it out.”
Consultants say digital ad spending has increased five fold this cycle over 2012 — despite being a non-presidential year. The increased demand has created a caveat emptor-style situation. “Ask for placement IDs — site lists. Where did my ad run?,” says Day.
For instance, in-banner video ads might be counted among the paid CPMs despite the viewer desperately trying to close down the video as opposed to watching it. “We’re basically going to put our money where out mouth is and offer verification,” says Day.
Jim Walsh, CEO at DSPolitical, echoes Day’s warning. “Be careful about the inventory you’re buying,” he says. “Some networks are raising prices because they may not have actually reserved their inventory.”
Walsh says his firm reserved $15 million of inventory in 2012 and significantly more this cycle (he declined to state a hard number.) Most of the inventory, he says, is “non-skipable pre-roll.”
“We knew we needed to have inventory. We also knew we’d be dealing with small political geography,” he says.
Walsh stressed the inventory DSPolitical is sitting on will go to help Democrats, but there are some non-partisan firms with coveted online inventory reserved.
Faced with scarcity, suggests Walsh, a nonpartisan firm might just have to favor one side over the other. “How are they making the decision of which side gets that inventory?” Walsh asks. “You can’t tell me a firewall solves that.”
Jordan Lieberman, president of CampaignGrid (a division of Audience Partners, which caters to both parties), dismisses any concern that nonpartisan firms would play favorites when it comes to inventory.
“That is among the most ignorant propositions I've heard. Go ask a newspaper, Facebook, television, or radio station the same question,” says Lieberman. “Hyper-partisan consultants are fine. But as we've seen, hyper-partisan technology equals stagnation.”
While the issue of online inventory is a relatively painless one now, that could change. Last cycle, some $150 million was spent on online digital ads, according to one estimate. In 2016, that figure is expected to be $500 million spent on online ads alone.
The lesson: It’s always best to book early.