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What is an Ad Server and How Does It Work?

A web server helps in storing online ads and delivering them to various websites – here is a detailed explanation of what an ad server is and how it works.

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What is an Ad Server

Since the very beginning of online advertising, several technologies were introduced to meet the growing demand and solve numerous problems faced by publishers, agencies, and brands. Ad serving platforms were brought into the advertising ecosystem with the same intent, thereby improving the entire media buying and selling process.

Ad serving first started in 1995 when digital marketing was in its infancy. Back then, it was used to help stakeholders manage their online ad campaigns and control the delivery with minimum ad-targeting possibilities. However, the entire ad serving system has come a long way since then, with ad serving platforms constantly evolving to meet the growing demands of publishers, agencies, and brands. This, in turn, made it the core of impactful advertising.

What is an Ad Server Platform?

For those interested in knowing what is an ad server platform, it is like a web server that stores online marketing advertisements and delivers them to digital supports like websites and mobile applications. However, this is the basic definition of an ad server. 

Modern ad servers have outgrown their initial purpose of simple storage and delivery. The interface provides users with a one-stop ad management solution, which includes putting up creatives, setting delivery parameters, targeting, monitoring, as well as optimizing online campaigns with analytics and other advanced algorithms.

Ad servers are used by publishers, agencies and brands to manage and deliver online ad campaigns and gain insights to monitor and improve performance. Additionally, they help the stakeholders in making instantaneous decisions about which ad to show where.

Types of Ad Servers

There are two types of ad servers essentially with the same technology but used by publishers and advertisers for different reasons. Let us talk about their uses with features and benefits in detail.

  1. First Party Ad Servers

Also known as publishers’ ad server, a first-party ad server allows publishers to manage the ad slots on their website and display ads that have already been sold to the advertisers via direct campaigns. It is responsible for making various decisions like deciding what ad to display on a particular website based on parameters such as target audience, impressions, CTR, etc. All in all, it is a complete end to end advertising solution for the publishers.

Features of First Party Ad Servers

  • Precise target options: Publishers also need to target the audience to decide which category of ad should show on a particular website/category page. 
  • Advanced Analytics: Publishers need to have detailed access to reports on the placement, zones, or website in addition to inventory forecasting. 
  • Zone rules and automatic linking: Publishers can prioritize deals and automate the ad serving process by setting some predefined rules.

Benefits for Publishers

  • Track impressions, clicks, and conversions
  • Get consolidated reports for placements
  • Optimize ad placement for better monetization
  • Automatically serve ads with predefined conditions
  • Connect with multiple demand partners and manage multiple campaigns in one interface
  1. Third-Party Ad Servers

Also known as advertisers’ ad server, a third-party ad server helps advertisers easily track their campaigns, collect data and verify certain metrics like clicks and impressions. Additionally, it can also be used for creative optimization like modifying ad elements and A/B testing. Together these features help the advertisers deliver quality ad experiences. 

Features of Third Party Ad Servers

  • Advanced capping: Advertisers can set frequency, click, cap actions, and limit the number of different events within a specific timeframe.
  • Campaign and banner rules: Advertisers get tools for optimization of ad campaigns and creatives.
  • Sophisticated analytics: Advertisers can access the quality of performance and traffic through analytics and other algorithms. 
  • Rich media elements: Advertisers can make use of rich media interactive elements and pick from pre-built templates for ease and convenience. 

Benefits for Advertisers

  • Run cross-platform ad campaigns 
  • Manage different campaigns in one place
  • Real-time optimization with precise targeting
  • Monitoring results and performance
  • Relocate budgets to best-performing campaigns

How does an Ad Server work?

Knowing what an ad server is incomplete without the understanding of how an ad server works. To do that the right way, we will have to first know why it was introduced. 

Media buying and selling was a direct and manual process between advertisers and publishers in the initial phase of online advertising. However, publishers and advertisers realized the need for a more convenient and easy way to do so. Additionally, they also felt the need to have a single platform that can help them run, manage, and monitor their campaigns across multiple channels. That is when the ad servers came into the picture. Now, let us understand how different types of ad servers work to cater to advertising needs.

First Party Ad Server

  1. When a user lands on a website, the browser requests the publisher’s website server for the page content. 
  2. The server returns the HTML content and starts rendering the page content. 
  3. An ad request is then sent to the publisher’s ad server to fill the ad slot on the webpage. 
  4. The publisher’s ad server then picks an ad campaign that is considered relevant for the user.
  5. This chosen campaign is sent back to the website in the form of a Java Script and finally displayed to the user. 

Third-Party Ad Server

  1. When a user lands on a website, the browser sends a request to the publisher’s website server asking for the page content. 
  2. The publisher’s server meets the requirement and starts rendering the HTML page content. 
  3. The request is then sent back to the publisher’s ad server to fill the ad slot on the page. 
  4. The publisher’s ad server then picks an ad campaign that is considered relevant for the user.
  5. This chosen campaign is sent back in the form of an ad markup that contains a URL to the advertiser’s ad server. 
  6. This markup requests the advertiser’s ad server for the ad markup.
  7. This markup is sent back to the publisher’s website and displayed as an ad to the user. 

In the end, ads served using any of the two server types gather information about the user interaction like clicks, impressions, completion rate, engagement, dwell time, etc. This data is stored within the server to help the publishers and advertisers analyse and improve the quality of their future campaigns. 

Factors that make a good ad server

Given the information, we now know what is an ad server. Adding to it is the list of essential factors that make a good ad serving platform. 

  1. Supports multiple ad sizes

A good ad server makes it easier for users to give life to challenging ad campaigns with the help of a wide array of ad sizes and ad platform acoustics. This, in turn, makes their ads compatible with different screens and browsers, leading to better visibility and ROI.

  1. Real-time analytics

Ad servers with real-time tracking and reporting capabilities give users the power to constantly optimize and improve their campaigns and generate a high ROI. This on the fly optimization eliminates the need for manual tracking of ads, thereby saving a lot of time and money. Real-time analytics is a complex architecture and only a few ad servers like Airtory offer this functionality.

  1. A/B Testing capability

Ad testing is a simple process of vetting an ad concept with its representative sample. You can either test a complete ad unit or specific aspects of it using the A/B testing functionality to be able to track winning creatives.

  1. Dynamic creative optimization

Last but not least on the list of essentials is the ability to add dynamic creative elements like rich media. Dynamic creative optimization is the method where you can see ads based on your browsing history, interests, device, locations, language etc., that adds a touch of personalization.

We hope that the given information provides you clarity on what is an ad server and helps you understand its benefits for various stakeholders. 

If you are an advertiser or publisher interested in ad serving platforms, you can easily request a demo and partner with the best available option to start building brilliant ad campaigns.

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