In 2019, advertising will officially reach a milestone a long time in the making: Digital spend will surpass spend in traditional channels for the first time in history, with projected totals reaching $129 billion and $109 billion, respectively.1
This massive growth in digital advertising has given rise to a new host of technology companies dedicated to maximizing value to both advertisers and content publishers. But what if the key to that equation is a renewed focus on the experience of an important third party—the actual viewers consuming the ads?
Enter INAP customer, Sovrn.
Sovrn provides innovative advertising tools, technologies and services to help independent publishers grow their audiences and make money through engaging ad content. The company carefully develops its technology to best serve its customers, including the agencies and brands who participate in the ad exchange.
A customer since 2017, Sovrn continues to grow their relationship with INAP, recently announcing a new cloud hosting agreement that will add performance-driven bare metal solutions in Seattle and Ashburn. The scalable single-tenant infrastructure platform includes INAP’s route-optimized Performance IP® service, which automatically directs Sovrn’s traffic along the lowest-latency path—a critical benefit in an industry where milliseconds matter.
I met with Sovrn’s Chief Technology Officer, Jesse Demmel, to learn more about their //Signal product, why it’s different, and the elements of their data center and network strategy that keep their business growing.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Ryan: With products like //Signal, it seems as if you’re trying to deliver a mutually beneficial experience for publishers, advertisers and content consumers. How does Sovrn’s technology achieve that?
Jesse: I’m glad you picked up on that. //Signal is trying to deliver for all three, which is the perfect trifecta. When you go to a website and you’re highly engaged, you’re spending a lot of time there. Currently, the best way a publisher can make money is to shove as many ads as they can in front of a consumer, because it’s an impression-based economy. However, those values are not aligned with what a consumer values, which is engaging content. What //Signal attempts to do is capture all those engagement metrics from a reader on a website, or on a piece of content, and make those valuable to the advertiser. And then, rather than using a currency of impressions and cost per impression, perhaps we can soon get to a place where we’re using cost by time or engagement value.
In short, the advertisers get more value with this model because they’re seeking conversion in highly engaged readers. The publishers end up getting paid more for that as well, because they’ve written content that is engaging. And then the readers get better value because they’re getting fewer, more engaging ads that entice them to act.
From the user’s perspective, when they’re on a website using your technology, do you think they consciously notice that the ads are more engaging and less abrasive?
The goal of the product is for consumers not to consciously notice it. Consumers have come out and said that they want free content on the web, and that they like advertising that is relevant and targeted to them. What they don’t like is advertising that interferes with their experiences. They’re trying to enjoy the content. The idea of //Signal is being able to reward publishers on their ability to create engaging content and serve consumers with less intrusive advertising. The ads are more meaningful and interfere less with their actual web experience.
With any media-rich website, speed is key to driving visitor engagement. How do publishers that rely on ad revenue ensure their tools aren’t getting in the way?
Latency is important to our publishers and their pages, and with modern browsers and web architectures, there are multiple ways to manage latency. A long time ago, everything that loaded was included in that latency. But now you can serve the important parts of the page first and things that aren’t as important can load secondary to that. Our publishers work hard to make sure that the webpage architecture doesn’t adversely affect the reader experience, and our technology tries to help with that.
What will be different about the ad tech industry five years from now?
I hope that ad tech will evolve to be more aligned with the engagement that’s happening on the web, rather than the gross number of impressions. Internal to the ad tech industry, I hope that the movement for greater transparency continues to change.
I think the biggest change facing the ad tech industry is consumer privacy, so the death of the third-party cookie. Safari keeps clamping down on their restrictions, and now Chrome is entering the fray with better controls around third-party cookies. Mozilla is doing the same thing with Firefox, so I think there’s a greater awareness that consumer privacy is going to be at the forefront, which we totally welcome and want to help drive. I think consumers are going to start owning their data decisions, and they’re going to decide who has access to their data and for which purposes. The ad tech industry will be coming along for that ride to play nicely in that environment.
I’m curious about the backend of how your technology is brought to life. Can you summarize your IT infrastructure strategy for delivering Sovrn’s products and services?
The ad tech industry, delivering tools for our publishers, that ecosystem is extremely dynamic and changes frequently. It moves very, very fast. We are solving internet-scale problems that change as fast as innovation happens on the internet, so we must be able to migrate extremely large workloads to work properly for ever-evolving standards. Our IT infrastructure must be flexible in nature, highly scalable and component based to allow us to easily add on to the technology. From a team perspective, that means we’re as agile as possible, getting tight feedback loops with our customers so that we’re always building what they want while making small adjustments along the way.
How has that approach evolved since the company was founded?
That agile mentality hasn’t changed since the company’s founding. But one way we’ve evolved is with a push to make sure the customer is at the center of everything we’re building. We’re solving such challenging technical problems, and I think it’s easy for the engineering teams to get caught up and forget who they’re solving these problems for. There’s actually a customer on the other side, and we’ve worked very hard over the last few years to make sure they are the focus.
What are some of the information technology benchmarks you set to determine if you’re successfully running the platform?
The values that we measure are performance-based for our publishers across our different products. Ultimately, it’s about whether they are making money from the ad exchange.
For performance, what’s going to drive that? It’s an extremely low-latent environment, so we make sure that timeouts occur as infrequently as possible. That’s one benchmark that we’re constantly monitoring. We also look at availability and reliability of the systems. Uptime is extremely critical with billions and billions of requests going through the system every day. Every millisecond or second that the system goes down is going to cost our publishers money, so that availability is extremely important.
Scalability is obviously a big one when we’re dealing with the amount of traffic that we are, and our traffic patterns follow consumer internet trends. In a given region for a given day, our traffic might go up and down by as much as 100 percent. Across all those requests, being able to scale that infrastructure up and down to meet those needs is extremely important. And then, we operate with a ton of data, so making sure that the data is stored and always reliable, as well as available and redundant, is very important. Security is obviously important as well.
Those are the kind of things we think about when we run the platform.
How does INAP, or your IT infrastructure, help achieve that availability, scalability, low latency and redundancy?
INAP was a selection for us primarily in helping with the low latency and availability piece, making sure the systems are always up and available. INAP is great in terms of networking performance, which is extremely critical to our business. Second is the service component. A server is always going to break down, network routes are always going to get messed up. How responsive and how proactive of a partner do we have in helping us resolve those issues? INAP customer service has proven very easy to work with.
1. Data featured in Ad Week, “U.S. Digital Ad Spend Will Surpass Offline in 2019”, Feb. 20 2019