The Rise of Self-Serve Ad Platforms: Don’t DIY Your Way to ROI

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In the past, brands large and small had few choices when it came to advertising. Brands with big enough budgets would either be forced to hire an in-house media buyer or work with an advertising agency that could leverage their relationships with advertising networks and place ads on behalf of the brand. Companies with smaller budgets were left with even fewer choices, due to hefty minimum spending thresholds enforced by the platforms themselves.

As technology becomes more ingrained into our everyday lives and the baseline for software savvy rises, many brands are taking a DIY approach to platform advertising and forgoing the assistance of a dedicated sales representative on the platform side. This growing trend of “self-serve” ad platforms gives brands, businesses and agencies direct access to place ads, define their own targeting and set their own budgets.

Social Media Spearheading the Self-Serve Movement

Facebook and Google have long been the pioneers of this sales structure. By making their ad inventory (the finite space available for purchase on a platform’s ad network) available to advertisers directly, the platforms are able to minimize their reliance on internal media representatives who often had to act as sales, technical support and everything in between.

But it’s only once a platform or network has gained significant momentum and trust from consumers that they are able to even consider making the tremendous financial investment to move towards a self-serve structure. Despite the time and investment required, it’s a trend that advertisers are seeing across the industry, especially among social platforms.

In 2017, Snapchat moved to a self-serve ad structure after years of exclusivity, restricted access and incredibly expensive inventory ($300k – $750k per engagement in many cases). While Snapchat has seen a steady decline in daily active users over the last few quarters, it’s posted unexpected revenue growth each quarter — thanks in part to a shift to their auction-based self-serve platform where the price for placement is dictated by advertisers’ “bid” for impressions, views and clicks.

Self-Serve Goes Off the Beaten Path

Social media platforms aren’t the only ones moving to this more accessible model for buying ad space. More traditional mediums are also providing new ways to buy ad space. In 2017, Spotify became the first platform in the audio space to open up their platform to small- and medium-sized businesses. The “Spotify Ad Studios” suite of tools lets advertisers control the entire process, from ad creation to launch.

After uploading a script, Spotify offers free voiceover recordings and background tracks. From there, advertisers choose their targeting options and set their own budgets. This is entirely unique when compared to other competitor audio mediums like traditional broadcast radio or satellite radio like Sirius XM, neither of which offer robust options for self-service. While targeting options are fairly limited, it generally costs about $0.025 each time someone hears an ad (similar to a single impression in other formats), making Spotify a fairly affordable option to help drive awareness.

To help accelerate the adoption of these tools, Spotify has started advertising their platform … on other platforms. Take for example this video that is currently being distributed in the form of an Instagram Lead Generation Ad.

Gaining Traction in Traditional Media

While billboards may seem like dinosaurs in the era of technological innovation, the growth of digital boards and the proliferation of smaller outdoor displays are a source of new opportunities. Third-party technology companies are now stepping in to provide self-serve advertising options to a new audience.

In 2016, Blip developed an innovative platform that allows advertisers to buy billboard and other “out of home” ad placements in the same way that they would buy banner ads. Blip partners with digital sign owners around the country, integrating with their systems and automating the sale of rotating digital ads on their signs.

In a few easy steps, advertisers choose their time and location, enter a budget and upload artwork directly into the platform. Advertisers benefit by not having to enter into long-term contracts to secure billboard placement while sign owners minimize their unsold ad inventory, a long-standing challenge. Blip is actively pursuing advertisers in an attempt to grow adoption for its platform in strategic markets, including our own here in Lafayette, Louisiana.

For brands, businesses and agencies of all sizes, the willingness of platforms to remove barriers to entry is a positive move for all involved (with the exception of those brands who’ve previously benefited from the exclusivity of said platforms). But alongside these gains in access and opportunity, there are some drawbacks to the self-serve approach that are worth considering.

The Downsides of Self-Serve Ad Platforms

One of the major issues with many self-serve ad platforms is pretty obvious — users are required to serve themselves. While it’s true that customers are fine pumping their own gas, not every self-serve option is an improvement over the status quo. In advertising, self-serve shifts much of the burden to marketers who may not have the expertise or resources to use the platform with confidence. (There’s a good reason many grocery stores have abandoned the self-checkout concept.) And as more people need support, no doubt more automated technical support systems will be needed to field those calls.

This often leaves self-advertisers wondering if they’re utilizing the platforms properly, receiving little support other than an encyclopedia of knowledge base articles or external user groups comprised of members who are themselves desperate for technical support. In many cases, users in need of help find little respite other than the knowledge that they’re not the only one experiencing their issue.

As with any advertising or marketing program, proving ROI and the effectiveness of each channel can be an unending challenge. At their very core (and by design), these platforms make it easier for users to spend money on the platform. With so many “proprietary algorithms,” “closed APIs” and other walled bastions of performance data, advertisers relying on the platforms’ internal analytics have no way to confirm their accuracy or reliability.

What constitutes an impression on one platform may not on another, just as the standard time for a tracked video view may vary. With so many data points owned by the platforms themselves and with so few windows into their inner workings, it is essential that advertisers measure their own performance after the click to decide whether or not a tactic is truly returning positive ROI. This is far easier said than done.

Roadblocks to Successful Implementation

While Facebook is leading the way in increased visibility into user activity through the use of its proprietary “Pixel” (a bit of code that is placed on a website to help track conversions from Facebook ads), the process is not exactly user-friendly. Statistically, a very small group of Facebook’s users has ever even visited the ad platform, much less installed a Facebook Pixel on their own. In the instructions for the installation process, Facebook goes as far as to say:

“Many people need the help of a developer to complete this step. If that’s the case, simply email your Facebook pixel code to them, and they can easily add it to your site.”

Simple, right? Wrong. Even if the user is able to get the code properly installed, there are further actions required to ensure activities are being tracked properly. So while it’s easy to boost a message to Facebook’s billions of users (evident by the sheer number of “boost now” and “promote now” buttons littering the Facebook administrator’s panel), actually measuring the performance of that spend is anything but “self-serve.”

Similarly, Google Ads offers direct connections between the platform and its Google Analytics product, but this requires a level of technical sophistication that is likely well beyond the end-user target audience of many self-serve platforms. The devil is in the details.

Drawing a Line in the Sand

The cornerstone of an effective campaign is the ability to review performance, make optimizations and iterate what worked well — while minimizing what did not. This takes detailed planning beforehand, the implementation of a tracking and performance plan pre-launch, a keen eye during the campaign, and the ability the draw insights from all of it. It’s far more than just compiling data.

With so many platforms moving to the self-serve model and vying for the same dollars, advertisers will be faced with a dizzying array of choices and options. If you’re considering the DIY approach, don’t underestimate the challenge of actually measuring your success or the benefit of having a trustworthy ad partner along for the ride. Self-serve isn’t a good option for every “self” out there; make sure you know what you’re getting into — before you dive in. 

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