Media buying is a very broad subject that relates to many advertising platforms. The current guide will concentrate on the programmatic buying of ads placed on third-party sites – this is, in effect, an avenue that is often less explored and not as exhaustively explained as the media buying process for search networks. It’s important to note, then, that when we mention media buying, it will only be in reference to buying ad space on third-party sites, also known as CPM advertising (from “cost per mille”, i.e. per thousand views), even though it is entirely possible to also do this type of advertising using CPC (“cost per click”) bidding.

What is media buying?

As mentioned above, media buying, also known as programmatic advertising, involves placing ads on third-party sites rather than in search results. Originally, when advertising professionals began media buying on the Internet, the work was done “by hand”. The advertiser had to identify the sites that would likely attract qualified traffic for the products and services they wanted to promote, contact those sites one-by-one and negotiate a price with the site administrators to have their banners placed.

Today, the entire process is automated with ad exchange software: websites list available ad slots and other parameters, and the buying often takes place in real time. Such platforms are based on an auction system similar to the stock exchanges.

The advantage to this system is increased transparency of campaign results: previously, there was no way for advertisers to tell if they were receiving the visibility they had paid for. In order to see their audience and the number of impressions, they had to rely on data sent to them by the website they had placed ads on. Thanks to automation, today’s advertisers know exactly how many impressions and clicks they receive in near real-time.

Setting Your Goals

Before purchasing ad space, it is important to determine your campaign goals and understand the users you want to target.
– Who are they?
– What are their interests?
– How can you segment your audience?

Essentially, media buying rests mostly on a thorough understanding of your customers – the audience you want to target and, above all, their online habits. If your target audience is occasional runners, for example, you won’t be aiming for the exact same users as a campaign directed at marathon athletes, and vice-versa.

To be as informed as possible, we would recommend studying your competition to see where your competitors are spending their ad dollars and what kind of messages they are broadcasting. When assessing an ad placement, always ask yourself whether the message seems effective, relevant to the host site and to your audience. The next step is to determine a suitable platform and produce the most effective message to put forward.

Google’s Media Buying Empire

Let us take a more detailed look at some of the most popular automated systems for purchasing ad space on third-party websites; we’ll start with Google’s products which focus on pay-per-view and pay-per-click marketing in this niche:

Google AdWords

The almighty AdWords is Google’s prime advertising platform which allows both search ads and media buying (in the form of Display Network ads). Google’s network of ad publishers contains hundreds of thousands of possible websites to advertise on, so the problem of narrowing down your options is more topical here than a lack of choice.

With Display advertising on Google AdWords, advertisers can filter their audiences according to several parameters:

  • Keywords: you choose a list of words and phrases related to the pages where your ads should appear – for example, if you want to promote a water park in Florida, you can choose keywords like “Florida water park”, “Florida activities” etc. It should be noted that Google determines the relevance of the pages automatically, based on closed-source proprietary machine learning systems – which means there’s the placements are typically spot-on, but there’s no guarantee that your ad will appear only on pages which actually have your specific combination of keywords in their text.
  • Interests: the system offers a range of audiences to target based on inferred interests: since Google actively records all kinds of information about the users of its vast range of online products, including location data, the company can recognize individual affinities with astounding, sometimes even creepy precision. For example, a person’s whereabouts can be analyzed and cross-referenced with landscape data to tell if they have recently developed a passion for gardening – and display gardening-related ads to those specific users.
  • Markets: Google will be able to recognize Internet users who are willing to make a purchase based on their browsing history. Have you ever browsed for a specific type of holiday gift, only to similar ads pop up on every subsequent site you visit?
  • Retargeting: this strategy is used to show your ads to users who have recently visited your website. It has proven extremely effective in bringing people back and driving conversions – your ads won’t be easily forgotten when you’re using this method.
  • Location: in goes almost without saying that geographical regions and specific cities can be used as filtering parameters for placing Display Network ads.
  • Website: you can even target a specific website’s audience – in other words, tell the system to display your ads on a single domain only. Of course, in order to be targeted, the site must have Google AdSense running on it.

Google DoubleClick

DoubleClick is a solution commonly used by agencies to manage campaigns on multiple search engines and multiple channels. It is a platform for managing large volume campaigns to most effectively determine which ones work best and adapt bid strategies accordingly. Reports are more frequent and specific on the DoubleClick network than on Google AdWords, as well as being more permissive.

Note, however, that there are restrictions when configuring display campaigns with DoubleClick. In effect, the platform only allows you to create audiences based on keywords. To find audiences based on location, interest etc., you will need to go through Google AdWords.

Banner Ad Marketplaces

Marketplaces that allow buying and selling ad space are platforms that directly compete with tools like Google Display Network. The pricing and specific conditions of placement may vary, but the basic principle of advertising on third-party sites using image banners is the same. Such platforms typically offer segment-based targeting (e.g. “cars”, “finance”, “health”) which can be further broken down to individual website level.

This solution is very similar to the methods used at the outset of programmatic advertising, except that nowadays you have much more autonomy and reactivity concerning publisher choice and spending, while the reporting interfaces have improved dramatically and allow tracking your performance in real time.

Two of the largest retail platforms that operate based on this model are BuySellAds and AdClerks, which we will look upon in more detail below. One of the main advantages of such platforms over Google’s tools is the presence of websites that might not be accessible via the search giant’s Display Network; another useful feature that saves time is ad bundles – pre-packaged placements on several websites that fit certain criteria. These can often have a bulk discount compared to hand-picking each of the constituent websites one by one.


On this platform, a one-time advertising fee is paid to place your ads on a site of your choosing. A wide range of categories are available, such as new technologies, cars, food and beverages, pets, health, etc. Although you can get access to several ad formats, including email listings and sponsored tweets, the primary medium is banner images.

Once you’ve chosen a suitable category, you will be able to browse the available websites to place ads on. To help you choose, BuySellAds provides the expected number of impressions for each ad space for each site available on the platform. The pricing is based on 30-day placement periods.


Much like BuySellAds, AdClerks is a self-service marketplace for online advertisements. There are multiple targeting options on this platform, including category, banner size, auction type, impressions, billing type: one-time fee or CPM, as well as CTR (which helps look for sites that can potentially generate more clicks from the views).

When evaluating a site on AdClerks, you can see their overall rating via indicators like Alexa Rank or Similar Web. You can also see the number of subscribers on their main social networks, the source of their web traffic and the ad formats that they accept.

Tracking Ad Performance

No matter which network you use, tracking your campaign performance should be a priority. Your campaign goal(s) should always be clearly defined and you should always know where you stand in relation to them.

And no, driving traffic to a website is not a campaign goal. All websites have a specific purpose that will be an indicator of their success. If you have an e-commerce site, your goal is obvious: to sell as much as possible. If you have a content-based site, e.g. a blog, you want readers. A showcase website? You want maximum number of people making contact with your sales team.

Even if you are in the launch phase and earning income is not your priority (yet), you will want users to browse the site, visit different pages or subscribe to your newsletter to collect as much data as possible. In short, there is always a clear goal to a web advertising campaign, and it always pays to formulate it upfront and keep it in mind while optimizing your ads and analyzing their performance.

Along with setting your goals, good analytics are essential for measuring your campaign success. The most comprehensive and widely known free analytics software is Google Analytics. I strongly recommend taking the time to configure it properly, especially for tracking conversions and goals. It will serve as a valuable asset for determining which site brings you the most qualified traffic.

Testing and Optimizing Your Ads

To ensure a successful media buying campaign, it is strongly suggested that you perform as many tests as possible. In order to determine the best audience, the best location, the best bid and the most effective ad copy, you will have to test as many campaign parameters as possible – otherwise you’d throwing some of your ad money in the wind.

Be careful, however – you don’t want to just test everything randomly. Your tests should be methodical: e.g. if you decide to test two different locations to find out which one delivers the most conversions, all other parameters must remain the same. How will you know which location works best if you run completely different ads on both sites? It would be impossible to sift though all the noise coming for other variables being different.

Moreover, be sure to test your ads at comparable time periods. If you test one audience between December 25th and 31st and another between December 1st and 7th, you can safely bet that the one tested between Christmas and New Year’s will yield completely different results. The same logic applies to specific days of the week (Wednesday traffic and Sunday traffic on the same site might be incomparable), other holidays and special days, and even seasons (people might want very different things in the summer than in cold months).

Unfortunately, a very frequently encountered situation is where ad campaigns are optimized too early. Advertisers generally want to optimize their ads as soon as possible to maximize their budgets as quickly as possible.

It is vitally important to let your campaigns run long enough to have adequate information that strategic decisions can be made with. If your ad has only been seen by 100 people and you only have 3 clicks, you will definitely need to wait a few more days (or maybe even weeks) before you can optimize your campaigns.

In fact, most of the time marketing specialists will ask you to wait 30 days before optimizing. Of course, the exact number of days has little significance, to the extent that the data adjusts according to the budget invested. It is evident that if you invest $200 into advertising in one month, you’ll have far less information about your audience and your campaign success than if you’re investing $20,000 a month.

As a general rule, you should always wait at least 7-8 days even if the budget you invest is substantial – Internet user consumption habits tend to fluctuate periodically according to the days of the week.

Don’t Forget About the Landing Pages

In display advertising, it is all too easy to place an ad on a site that has nothing to do with your line of business or have a landing page design that is completely unrelated to the site you advertise on. Ads and landing pages that you publicize must always be tailored to the sites on which your ads will run.

Don’t hesitate to test several different messages and see what kind of ads are usually displayed on the chosen website. Make sure the expectations generated from your ad match the services you offer on your landing page. Far too often, ad text promises users the Moon to attract as many visitors as possible and, once they arrive on the site, these users find discrepancies between the page they land on and the message that brought them there. Be careful not to disappoint your visitors.

Over to You!

As you can imagine, media buying is a topic that can be discussed for hours on end. Investment opportunities are exceptionally varied and there are a great number of platforms to choose from. Give it a try, using a predefined budget and measuring your campaign success using analytical data to find the platform that delivers you the best results.

We’d love to hear about your personal experiences with media buying – hit us in the comments below; in case you have questions or would like to propose additions to the current guide, let us know as well!

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by Eugénie Delhaye
Eugénie is co-founder of My Little Big Web, a web agency based in Montreal. Before starting her business, she worked for Microsoft and several start-ups. She regularly shares her expertise on strategies combining SEO, user experience and online advertising.

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