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A publisher is a person or company that is responsible for bringing an author’s work to the public.

Most publishers in the advertising technology (adtech) sector fall into two categories: selling (supply-side) entities and buying (demand-side) entities. Publishers are a major type of person or a copmany in the industry and one of the most important seller entities

Learn the essential information about publishers in the digital advertising and the most significant differences between publishers and advertisers, and how publishers earn money.

Essential Definition of a Publisher

In the adtech industry, a publisher is any individual, company, or entity operating a website, mobile application, or digital property with digital ad spaces for sale.

In this context, ad space refers to any area within the digital property where ads can be displayed, such as banners, interstitials, native ads, or any other ad type.

Publishers sell their ad spaces to advertisers, who bring in the advertisements displayed on the publisher’s digital property.

Differences Between Publishers and Advertisers

Although a given site, blog, app, or digital property can be both an advertiser and a publisher, their primary differences are linked to their relationship with the ad-serving process.

An advertiser is typically a brand or a company with products and services, or more generally, any entity with a message they want users to see and the need to use advertising to display it. They purchase available ad spaces from publishers to display ads.

In contrast, a publisher’s role is similar to that of their namesakes in the print publishing industry: they sell dedicated ad spaces or parts of their digital properties (websites, apps, blogs, etc.) to advertisers looking to display ads.

Below is a list of critical differences between publishers and advertisers.

Publishers Advertisers
Controls the spaces and elements in which ads are displayed Controls the products or services in the displayed ads
Can set the size, formats, and specifications and quality standards for the ads they display Can control the contents of the ad creatives
Can be an individual or a company operating a digital property with suitable space Are most often companies or entities with products or services to sell
Earns money from advertisers by selling the ad space Spends money on the ad space, earns it through return on investment (ROI)

Examples of Digital Advertising Publishers

Operators of any digital property become digital advertising publishers when they offer ad space for sale, automatically becoming part of the digital publishing process. Typical examples include these commonly encountered properties:

  • Media websites offering ad spaces on the margins or in-between the content, typically displaying banners
  • Specialized blogs and online magazine publishing entities offering ad space in their blog posts, typically in the form of native ads (e.g., sponsored review of an article)
  • Mobile gaming applications offer ad space in the game, typically in the form of interstitial ads displayed between game sessions or at specific intervals

Prominent ad publishers with highly desirable ad spaces include popular websites, apps, blogs, and other digital properties that drive significant amounts of traffic. Examples include these properties:

  • Websites and apps for major news media publications and traditional magazine publishing companies, such as Time Magazine, USA Today, or the New York Post
  • Specialized blogs and online magazines, such as Tablespoon.com or NerdWallet
  • Top-rated mobile games and applications, such as Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, or Genshin Impact

How Do Digital Ad Publishers Make Money?

Generally speaking, a publishing company, individual, or entity on the supply side of the digital ad-serving process earns money by selling ad spaces on their digital properties.

However, publishers can control many formats, ad sizes, and parameters, offering different monetization options and performance.

Ad Formats

The digital publishing process functions similarly to traditional print and magazine publishing. Just as a publishing house reserves pages and page sections for ads in a newspaper or a magazine, a digital publisher must set aside digital spaces on their web pages or applications to display ads and earn money from the ad publishing process.

Modern digital advertising distinguishes ad sizes and units designed for display on desktop computers and those intended for mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. This difference primarily exists due to the vast technological differences between the two device types.

How Publishers Earn Money from Ad Formats

While the format of an ad does not, by itself, influence how publishers earn money, it is critical for publishers to know about the different ad formats available and select the correct ad formats for their digital properties.

Choosing efficient combinations of ad formats and placements preserves the user’s experience while enhancing the profitability of these ads, earning the publisher more money in the long term.

For instance, desktop computers are typically more powerful and benefit from higher screen resolutions. Mobile devices are smaller, don’t have as much power, and are primarily operated with touch controls.

These differences profoundly affect the way users interact with their devices and, in turn, how they see and experience ads. The more positive the experience (ads integrating well with the content, not invasive, relevant to the content, etc.), the more the users interact with them, increasing their profitability.

While some ad formats, such as banner ads, are common to both desktop and mobile, others are exclusive to the mobile format, such as interstitials.

Commonly Used Ad Formats

Examples of ad formats commonly used by publishers on desktop devices include:

  • 300×250 medium rectangle banner
  • 300×600 half-page banner
  • 336×280 large rectangle banner
  • 728×90 leaderboard
  • Promoted results in search engines
  • Pop-up and pop-under ads
  • Push notification ads
  • Auto-playing video ads in embedded players

Common ad formats used on mobile-optimized digital properties include:

  • 300×250 mobile medium rectangle
  • 320×50 mobile leaderboard
  • 320×100 large mobile banner
  • Interstitial video ads
  • Interstitial interactive ads
  • Rewarded in-app video ads

Payment (Monetization) Models

Besides the type, size, and format, publishers can also control the payment model used to determine the price of displaying an ad on a digital property. Advertisers and buy-side entities pay publishers according to the selected model and pricing in exchange for the possibility of displaying their ad content in the ad space of their choice.

The four primary payment models are CPM, CPC, CPA, and CPI.

1. CPM

CPM stands for Cost Per Mille. The word “Mille” comes from Latin and translates to “one thousand.” The CPM payment model allows publishers to charge advertisers a specific amount for every 1,000 impressions the ad has generated. An impression is generated when a user has viewed the ad, making it equivalent to a view count.

CPM is one of the most popular pricing models in the digital publishing industry because it requires no action from the viewer other than loading the page. It is an affordable model for advertisers and other buyers. For publishers, it is a more predictable monetization solution than other methods. However, to ensure the optimal performance of a CPM ad campaign, publishers often need to use rich media ad formats, which can be resource-intensive on mobile devices.

  • Example: A publisher may set a price of $2 CPM for a particular ad space. Suppose an advertiser fills this space, resulting in the ad generating 13,500 views. In that case, the publisher will earn 13.5 times the listed price, or $27.

2. CPC

CPC stands for Cost Per Click. This model may also be called Pay Per Click (PPC). Although the CPC payment model is the oldest in the digital publishing industry, it remains in common use and can be one of the most effective in the right circumstances.

The CPC model is straightforward: publishers charge a specific amount each time a user clicks on an ad. The average price range for a click in a CPC ad campaign tends to be within the same range as the prices for 1,000 impressions in a CPM ad, meaning each click is relatively valuable.

A highly successful CPC campaign can be highly lucrative for both publishers and advertisers. The simplicity of the CPC payment model makes tracking performance easy; a higher number of clicks means more engagement and, in turn, more revenue. 

The primary drawback is the requirement for users to interact with the ad. Compared to a CPM ad campaign, which functions based on views, CPC ads earn nothing until users click on the ad, meaning the ad must be highly relevant and engaging to secure a click.

    • Example 

A publisher sets a price of $3.50 CPC for a specific ad space on their mobile application. Suppose an advertiser buys this space and manages to generate 100 clicks. In that case, the publisher will earn 100 times the listed CPC price, or $350.

3. CPA

In digital advertising, CPA stands for either Cost Per Action or Cost Per Acquisition, depending on the context. Although it employs similar principles to the CPC model, the primary difference between CPC and CPA campaigns is the action triggering payment to the publisher.

In CPC campaigns, publishers make money each time a user clicks on an ad. In contrast, a CPA campaign requires the user to click on the ad and complete a specific action afterward. Typically, advertisers look for CPA campaigns when they are looking to achieve conversions. For instance, an eCommerce platform may launch a CPA campaign to turn users viewing an ad into paying customers.

CPA campaigns typically price a successful action much higher than a single click or 1,000 impressions, usually in the $40 to $60 range, although some campaigns may exceed $100 per action.

If properly targeted, CPA campaigns can significantly benefit both the publisher and the advertiser. However, because CPA campaigns require even more commitment from the user, they have more stringent relevancy and targeting requirements to provide the expected returns.

    • Example

A publisher sets a price of $50 CPA for a designated interstitial ad space in a mobile game. Suppose an advertiser looking to promote an eCommerce platform buys the ad space. In this case, the successful action is getting users to visit the platform and complete a purchase. If the campaign converts 21 users into customers, the publisher will earn 21 times the listed CPA price, or $1,050.

4. CPI

CPI stands for Cost Per Install. The CPI payment model is a variant of the CPA approach primarily used in mobile advertising.

In a CPI campaign, the action is specifically defined as installing the application or mobile game promoted in the ad. Most CPI campaigns register a successful install only when a user downloads, installs, and runs the app at least once. Others may require extra steps like users running the app and creating a new account.

Although CPI campaigns are similar in principle to CPA, engaging users and inciting them to install a new app is typically considered easier because most apps promoted in a CPI campaign are free and readily available on their device’s app store.

However, efficient CPI campaigns have the same effective requirements as their CPA counterparts: Success depends on proper targeting and user relevance. A typical example is mobile games: a mobile game user is more likely to tap on an interstitial ad if it is promoting a game of a similar genre or quality.

    • Example

A digital publishing house sets a price of $3 CPI for a designated interstitial space in a mobile game. If an advertiser buys that space and the ad generates 300 new installs, the publisher will receive 300 times the listed CPI amount, or $600.

Affiliate Strategies

Affiliate marketing is an alternative, performance-based source of revenue for publishers. Under the affiliate marketing model, publishers become affiliates of a brand with a product or service to advertise. Besides the publisher, the brand, and the customer, this model introduces a fourth entity: the affiliate network, in charge of managing the affiliate marketing program.

Instead of simply displaying ads, publishers looking to monetize their digital properties through affiliate marketing must effectively promote the product being advertised themselves, typically by producing content relevant to the publisher’s digital property.

For example, an enthusiast blog focusing on fitness products may promote new gym equipment on behalf of the brand (the manufacturer). The network may dictate terms and conditions, such as requiring the publisher to focus on specific features or elements of the product.

Payments are similar to traditional advertising models; sponsored content typically contains a link to the manufacturer’s website or a retailer selling their product, and advertisers reward the publisher for each sale, conversion, or defined action.

Publishers vs. Programmatic Advertising

While adtech publishers can choose to sell their ad space and form deals with advertisers directly and manually, today’s publishers rarely do so. Today, most publishers rely on programmatic advertising to sell ad space, automating much of the work that would otherwise require manual reviewing and data sharing with advertisers.

While the programmatic advertising environment comprises multiple entities, the environment itself is a middleman, facilitating communication between buyers and sellers and acting as a broker.

For instance, publishers can use the programmatic advertising environment to access a supply-side platform (SSP), an adtech platform designed to help automate the management of a publisher’s ad inventory. Advertisers have access to an equivalent technology, the demand-side platform (DSP), to automate the management of their ad purchases.

Ad networks vs. Ad Exchanges

The primary difference between ad networks and ad exchanges is their primary purpose. While they are both essential elements of the programmatic advertising environment, the way each one functions is fundamentally different.

An ad network’s primary purpose is to serve as an aggregator of ad inventory, collecting listings from publishers and offering them for sale to advertisers. It is an intermediary intended to facilitate sales.

In contrast, an ad exchange is a digital marketplace, helping buyers and sellers connect directly to buy and sell ad inventory. There is no intermediary in ad exchanges, as all deals are directly worked out between the relevant parties.

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1. What is the Role of a Publisher?

The role of a website publisher is the person or company operating it. They are in control of the site’s ad spaces and placement.

2. What is the Difference Between a Publisher and a Platform?

A publisher is an entity that generally produces or is its content. In contrast, a platform hosts other people’s content without producing its own. Although major firms such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon are the world’s best-performing ad sellers, they are platforms, not publishers.

3. Who is a Publisher in Affiliate Marketing?

In affiliate marketing, the publisher (or affiliate) is the person in charge of promoting the product or service advertised by the brand.

4. How are Publishers, Advertisers, and Marketers Different?

In digital advertising, a publisher sells space to display ads, and an advertiser buys ad space to display the products and services they offer. An affiliate marketer is the equivalent of a publisher in affiliate marketing. They use their platform to promote a product to their audience.

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