Demand Side Platforms: What's the Best DSP for Your Organization?

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Demand Side Platforms: Choosing the Best For You

What are the best demand side platforms for advocacy or political campaigns? That depends on what your needs for digital campaigns are.  How much staff capacity do you have?  What are the budgets you’re looking to spend?  Most vendors now also give you the option to have a dedicated member of their staff manage your campaign or will give you the keys to their demand side platform to manage your campaign yourself. How do you decide which demand side platform to pick and which method to use?

What Is a Demand Side Platform?
A demand side platform—more commonly referred to as a DSP—is a type of software that allows advertisers to purchase impressions across a wide variety of websites. Ads are targeted to specific people based on information like their location, demographic data, and the type of content they’re browsing. This system allows advertisers to run ads across a much larger network of websites than the traditional method of calling up the sales team, one site at a time, and negotiating a cost with them. Instead, a demand side platform automates ad buying by setting a bid on an audience set that goes through a real-time auction on marketplaces called ad exchanges. The process of bidding and winning all takes place in a matter of milliseconds as a webpage loads for a specific user with the winning bid getting to place an ad on the page that person is looking at.

The primary reason we use demand side platforms is that they allow us to essentially follow our target audience around the internet, rather than trying to guess what sites they might visit. These ads often cost less than buying space directly on a site like the and we don’t have to worry as much about wasting an ad on someone who isn’t interested in our message. They also take a lot less time to get live than calling up several individual sites to negotiate rates. There are a variety of demand side platforms out there, what makes them different from each other?

Targeting Options
The best demand side platforms for you will have access to the marketplaces that can reach your ideal audience. There are a lot of ways to reach people online these days, from third party cookie data to first party data, IP addresses to zip codes, and more. Thing about the audience you’re trying to reach and what targeting methods you think would work best to meet them where they are. For political advertising, we often like to use voter file segments or even upload a specific voter universe. If that’s the case for you, it’s worth asking any potential demand side platform vendors if they have access to options like TargetSmart voter file segments and if you can upload a list yourself. If you are planning to upload your own list, you’ll also want to ask if there is a fee associated with matching that list. 

Another thing to keep in mind is the geographic location of your targeted demographic. All demand side platforms  have zip code targeting, but that may not be the right way to target your campaign. For example, if you’re trying to reach people who live along a potential pipeline project and you want to run ads to them, zip codes likely won’t be granular enough. In that case, the best demand side platforms for you would have the option to draw a polygon around the pipeline to geofence or even have addressable geofencing that allows you to target people based on their home address and property lines. Is your audience in a rural area? That’s another place that targeting can get tricky and we typically see lower match rates on voter file lists in more sparsely populated areas where people access the internet in different ways than those in bigger cities. In that case, it’s likely that you’ll have a better shot of reaching people on their smartphones, so you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of ways to reach people on mobile devices.

Pricing for demand side platforms can vary a lot depending on how you plan to use them. They can either have no minimum, a high annual contracted spend, or anything in between. The best demand side platforms will meet your budget needs while being as efficient with your dollars as possible. If you plan to run a ton of advertising, you might be able to negotiate a deal where the minimum you promise to spend gets you lower costs in other areas. On the other hand, if you have a smaller budget or if you’re just testing the waters with demand side platforms, it’s likely a better option to choose one with no minimums—although it’s worth noting that the cost comes in other ways like higher CPMs. 

Customer Service
One of the most important things in determining what the best demand side platforms for you are is customer service. A platform with all the targeting options you want isn’t much use if you can get it to work right. Getting a recommendation from someone you know is a great place to start. You can also try giving a new demand side platform a small portion of a larger budget to see how it performs while still having the assurance that the majority of the buy is being spent with someone you trust. If you’re planning to work around elections, it’s a good idea to ask how they intends to staff up around important times like general elections and if they’ll be reachable on weekends. Unfortunately, the best measure of a customer service team is how they respond to a mistake. It’s worth asking how they deal with that up front.  If the answer isn’t “we will look into it right away and if we made an error or there was a technology failure on our end we will own up to it and figure out a make-good,” you’re not dealing with one of the best demand side platforms. 

Many vendors now offer you the opportunity to run your digital campaign ads directly in their demand side platform. There should be some training involved, either through a series of phone calls with screen-shares or in-office events. They should also provide some customer support afterwards as you get used to using their platform and as you run into errors. But they won’t be the ones going in to monitor bids and adjust your campaign to make sure your budget is pacing well and you’re reaching your audience. 

This option offers you the most control over your ads. If your objectives change and you need to edit your strategy, you don’t have to wait for a vendor to gather their team together to go in and fix it for you. Self-serve systems are also less expensive than managed systems because they involve less work for the vendor.

Unfortunately, each demand side platform is different and if you use more than one, you’ll likely have to learn an entirely different system for each platform. This can heighten the learning curve for managing your own digital campaign advertising and make things more frustrating when you’re in a crunch-time. They can also take up significantly more staff time since someone has to monitor the campaign daily and make adjustments. We would only recommend this option if you have the staff capacity and the experience to really dive into a complex system. If you have that in place, the reward is greater control over your campaigns as well as transparency over pricing structures and targeting segments.

Managed service is a little bit more expensive than self-serve, but it can be worth it. If you’re running a digital campaign with multiple vendors, it can make things a lot simpler and more efficient to use a managed service than to learn each demand side platform. In addition to making your life simpler, a managed service typically comes with a dedicated contact who can help you make decisions about targeting and how to spend your money. A good vendor will act like a partner and suggest strategies that you might not have thought of. They often have a better understanding of the data that comes through the back end, so they can optimize campaigns to run more successfully or even make suggestions about new targeting options to try out.

Ad Servers

Regardless of whether we’re running self-serve or managed service campaigns, we always use a 3rd party ad serving system, like Google’s Double Click Manager, to track our campaigns. This provides outside verification on how many impressions are being served, how many clicks and video completions we are getting, as well as geographic information that tells us where our ads are running. If you’re just getting started with digital advertising or have a relatively small team, this is the best of both worlds because it allows you a lot of the control of the self-serve platform, with the support of managed service.

Are you looking for the best demand side platform for a organization? Check out our post on the five things we think every political campaign should be doing digitally in 2020 for more tips.