Understanding the key differences between the top video game ad networks and exchanges
The two distinct platforms allow publishers to monetize their game content and enable advertisers to reach their desired target audience.
We know that in-game ads can benefit publishers, developers, and advertisers. Both ad networks and exchanges are a useful part of programmatic advertising and can help grow your game or brand.
But what’s the difference between an exchange and a network?
A video ad network is a company that connects publishers and advertisers. Google would be an example of an ad network because it connects both supply and demand. Those platforms collect inventory from publishers and sell it to advertisers.
An exchange is a platform that allows publishers and advertisers to buy and sell ad inventory from multiple networks. It is not an intermediary.
Both ad networks and exchanges facilitate the media buying process, but “ad networks are like stockbrokers in the stock market that help you buy the right stocks according to your requirement. An ad exchange is like the stock exchange itself, allowing you to buy or sell stock in an open market.”
Here are a few of the most popular networks and exchanges available for both publishers and advertisers. This is the fourth article in our series on why video game advertising is a huge opportunity for brands in 2023.
Some of the most popular in-game ads are those advertising other games. If you have a game that you’re looking to promote, a Universal App Campaign (UAC) is a great way to do it. Google’s UACs are an easy and popular solution for brands and game developers alike. Google claims that their UACs achieve about 140% more conversions than other campaign types.
When creating a UAC, advertisers need to provide videos in both portrait and landscape, budget, target, location, and languages. Google’s AI will do the rest and create and test different ads and placements.
Google AdMob works with millions of advertisers who pay for space on mobile games. Ad variations include:
- Banners (standard, adaptive and smart)
You can read more about working with Google AdMob to create a campaign here.
Most of the creative specs will be the same as a normal Google Ad campaign, but sizes and types can be found here.
Last year Microsoft announced they were acquiring Activision Blizzard, a leader in game development and interactive entertainment content publisher. In the announcement released in January, Microsoft stated that the “acquisition will accelerate the growth in Microsoft’s gaming business across mobile, PC, console and cloud and will provide building blocks for the metaverse.”
If the deal goes through, Microsoft will acquire Activision for 68.7 billion (including net cash). This makes Microsoft the world’s third-largest gaming company by revenue, behind Tencent and Sony. The acquisition includes iconic franchises from the Activision, Blizzard and King studios like “Warcraft,” “Diablo,” “Overwatch,” “Call of Duty” and “Candy Crush,” in addition to global eSports activities through Major League Gaming. Understandably, Sony is actively trying to stop the acquisition.
This year Microsoft told Business Insider that they were starting to identify ad tech companies who can create in-game inventory for free-to-play games on Xbox, as well as ad agencies that could help place the ads.
Xbox currently allows limited forms of advertising. Right now, advertisers can buy ads on the Xbox dashboard, and they can buy in-game ads on certain games, through third parties Yahoo and Anzu.
The ads would appear as billboards, attire for avatars, stores, apparel, and more. According to Insider Intelligence, a Reddit thread on the popular forum r/Games with over 3,500 upvotes was full of negative responses to the news. “Billboard ads in-game is one thing, but having ads interrupt in the middle of the game would drive me insane,” said one commenter. Popular gaming news site Kotaku’s coverage of the news begins, “Raise your hand if you’re excited to see more ads inside your favorite video games? I don’t see any hands. Well, bad news.”
Activision Blizzard offers both Rewarded video and Rewarded Rich Media ad types, which are both non-intrusive and allow users the opportunity to interact with the content without leaving the platform.
Creative specs for Activision Blizzard mobile ads can be found here:
For esports, the specs are as follows:
Unity ads is an ads monetization software for mobile games. It provides publishers and advertisers tools and analytics to drive revenue through mobile gaming apps. They claim to have a diverse ad supply, advanced targeting tools, insightful analytics, and a self-serving dashboard to help manage campaigns.
Among those tools is an Audience Pinpointer that uses machine learning to find players most likely to have value. It uses dynamic pricing to allow advertisers to bid more for predicted higher-value users.
Unity ads teamed up with Snap in 2020 to extend the reach of its ad supply. They have also agreed to merge with supposed malware developer ironSource after an offer by mobile tech company AppLovin was rejected this week.
The creative specs for ads within the Unity platform differ for videos and end card placements. Videos should be 30 seconds or less, in 16:9 or 9:16 pixel ratios, and be less than 100MB in size. The full spec requirements can be found here.
Tel Aviv-based Anzu.io is the newest ad-tech gaming platform that integrates digital ads directly into gameplay, without disrupting the user experience. Anzu.io also measures the ad’s effectiveness with real-time analytics. Anzu claims “Intrusive ads interrupt gameplay and damage the player experience. Anzu works with advertisers, developers, and gamers to produce in-game ad experiences that complement the gameplay making it more realistic.”
Anzu integrates ads in various formats such as blended (non-interruptive), relevant (tailored messaging), and realistic (real-world campaigns). Examples of these are billboards, sports stadiums, apparel, food, and more. The platform can integrate into PC, mobile, console, and Roblox platforms.
Earlier this year NBCUniversal partnered with Anzu to bring in-game ads to its sales roster. Until then, the infrastructure didn’t exist to bring native ads to gamers at scale. “Our advantage is technology and supply. And their advantage is demand,” said Anzu co-founder and CEO Itamar Benedy. “Everyone is talking about the impending metaverse, and we are starting to see it emerge from several different angles. However, if you want to see it in action right now, you just need to look to today’s most popular gaming platforms, which are hosting virtual concerts and film screenings. This funding will further expand our in-game advertising solution, helping even more advertisers understand where their brand fits in, and how they navigate these immersive, digitally-connected spaces.”
Game developers would work with Anzu to place ads into their existing games. The exact placements would be determined by both sides with a goal to maximize impressions with “minimal impact to the gameplay experience.”
Anzu’s inventory can run across game titles, publishers, genres, devices, and platforms, as well as geographies and formats including video, display, and custom interactive ads that are sale and privacy-compliant.
AdExchanger reports Anzu has built ad infrastructure in games on mobile, PC, consoles and in the metaverse; titles include Roblox, Ubisoft’s Trackmania and Saber Interactive’s Dakar Desert Rally. The company is also a licensed in-game advertising partner for Microsoft’s Xbox, and its solutions are compatible with Unreal Engine, one of the most widely used game-development engines.
Because people spend so much time playing video games, in-game ads are one of the best ways to reach them. Game developers work with Anzu to program ads into their existing games. Anzu and developers work together to determine the best ad placements to maximize impressions with little to no interruption of the gameplay experience.
Anzu’s inventory includes games, publishers, genres, devices, and platforms including video, display, and custom interactive. The company also partnered with Roblox and just extended its partnership with Ubisoft.
Anzu ad formats include:
- Blended display
- Blended video
- Custom ads
Creative specs for in-game ads aren’t readily available on the Anzu.io website, but last month they partnered with Integral Ad Science (IAS) to help them “compete with more established forms of media.” In game advertising has been compared to the Wild West environment when it comes to dealing with numerous developers, platforms, creative specs, and more in order to create an ad campaign.
The Partnership is an attempt at transparency for display and mobile formats in mobile gaming. “By partnering with Anzu, we now deliver in-game measurement and transparency for advertisers within gaming environments. This integration sets the platform for quality standards within ad-supported gaming and allows advertisers to better understand and control the quality of their media on Anzu.” says Tom Sharma, chief product officer of IAS.
ironSource is another company that develops technology for app monetization. They recently merged with Unity after Unity rejected an offer from AppLovin. ironSource claims to be one of the ad networks with the highest CPM for publishers, which drives many to its platform. Their ad formats range from:
- Playable ads
- Rewarded video
The ironSource ad network can be integrated in both the Android and iOS software development kit (SDK). The platform can be used for both monetization and advertising and uses machine learning to acquire “high-quality users” who stay engaged and play for a long time. They also say that users who are acquired through interactive ads have a 35% higher retention rate.
ironSource has been criticized in the past for developing advertising malware. That troubled history is raising some red flags for investors and developers. In 2010 ironSources first product was called InstallCore. It had roughly 100 million monthly installations by 2012. Eventually, Microsoft’s Windows Defender, Malwarebytes, and other anti-malware apps started flagging InstallCore as malware.
ironSource didn’t discontinue InstallCore until 2020, just one year before going public. However, the damage was done and many developers still associate it with the controversial software. When the merger with Unity was announced, developers and even laid off Unity employees took to social media to complain that they should have just fixed their own ad platform instead. They worried that Unity would then install malware into game development engines. Unity responded by citing that InstallCore wasn’t a part of ironSource any longer, and that they only develop products for mobile and app developers, not desktop applications.
The creative specs for ironSource ads vary with placement and can be found here.
AppLovin is an exchange platform that enables publishers and agencies to reach mobile app users using machine learning and predictive algorithms. They claim to be able to connect buyers to 60,000 mobile apps on 1.5 billion devices globally.
Their platform supports ads in various formats such as:
- Rewarded video
- Rich media
SparkLabs is AppLovin’s in-house team of designers, developers, and gamers who help create ads. Their strategy includes understanding how the design and creative elements influence and motivate people to take action. This includes:
- Making it easy for players to engage
- Using trending mechanics and seasonal content
- Creating ads that feel native
- Consider testing live footage
- Keeping the ads relevant
- Getting inspired by activities outside the industry
The creative specs for AppLovin ads aren’t readily available online, but if you’re interested in creating a campaign, you can sign up here.
While this isn’t a complete list of ad networks and exchanges available to developers and advertisers, these are the most popular, widest used, and have the most opportunity for growth as the video game industry continues to rise.
If you’re interested in advertising your brand in a video game, the first step is to research which platform your target audience uses, and the best formats to help you get in front of as many users as possible.
The search marketers guide to video game advertising
ICYMI, don’t forget to check out the other articles in our series on why brands should be creating video game ad campaigns in 2023.
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