Twitter's acquisition of mobile supply-side platform MoPub this week could pave the way for more activity and something close to standard business models in the nascent mobile exchange space.
Established desktop exchange players like the Rubicon Project and PubMatic, which have expansive networks on the sell side, have struggled to retrofit their existing platforms to meet the needs of mobile media. Meanwhile pure-plays like Nexage, Mobclix, Smaato, Inneractive and (up to now) MoPub have lacked truly significant scale to open up larger amounts of inventory despite rapid traffic growth.
"The mobile exchange space has long needed a solution that approaches mobile advertising from a different perspective than online advertising," said Melissa Parrish, a principal analyst and research director for Forrester. "There are a lot of small companies out there developing their own standard. But because of Twitter's reach and the fact that everything about it has been focused on mobile first, having started with the 140-character limit, as opposed to the PC, this deal will give mobile ad exchanges a great deal more attention."
Mobile RTB aims to add efficiency to the process of buying and selling. However, it does it in a way that doesn't reflect how mobile advertising actually works, Parrish added. "Everyone has simply taken a version of what works online and done the same thing on mobile. So I'm excited to see whether this is the deal that helps drive the mobile advertising that comes."
The mobile advertising that comes will have to take into account the limits of cookie-based targeting, something that hasn't translated so well from the Web. In Parrish's view, the main difference that will emerge from Twitter's acquisition of MoPub will be in how advertisers perceive the subtleties between "targeting" and "personalization."
Here's a rundown of the strengths and weaknesses of each:
Rubicon: As the company has shifted from a "yield optimizer" and a supply-side platform (though executives deny ever positioning itself that way), managing publishers' display impressions has been at the core. For the past year, the company has quietly pursued the IPO path – or, perhaps, set itself up for a major acquisition by Facebook or Yahoo – and it has worked to expand its mobile services. Still, the mobile focus here is about closing the loop for its publisher clients and the marketers who are starting to demand more mobile access to inventory as well.
As such, Rubicon's approach to mobile is essentially about extending its display impressions to covering mobile, as opposed to building a distinctly mobile business. In the spring of 2012, Rubicon bought mobile ad platform Mobsmith for an estimated $10 million. The company has been fairly quiet about the integration, though it has started to push on mobile direct order automation via its Connect product for its "comScore 500 inventory."
According to Rubicon, over 200 of those top 500 publishers have used its mobile seller solution. Additionally, the company says that its mobile solution is performing so well, it is averaging a more than 2X increase in CPMs and is expected to surpass that figure by the close of 2013.
PubMatic: Along with Rubicon, PubMatic is considered the other big player in the SSP space, along with Google's AdMeld. Its focus is naturally similar: close the loop on display. Its mobile services connect with inventory from 30 ad networks in what it bills as a cross-platform play.
Nevertheless, PubMatic has emphasized its mobile growth with some impressive percentages, though they mostly show the company just getting started. In April, PubMatic upgraded its platform to identify devices, which entailed combining first-party, geo-targeting, carrier and device data. It also expanded its partnership with JumpTap, before that company was acquired by mobile ad network Millennial Media last month. It's not clear how that partnership has evolved since the spring, but PubMatic did tout that Jumptap saw an average increase of 504% in paid impressions month-over-month in April.
Nexage: The mobile SSP is considered one of the leading independents in the space, now that MoPub has been snapped up. The company has sought to solidify relationships with publishers – it claims to work with more than 300 publishers and 200 "demand sources" – by promising greater brand safety and transparency, both of which are items of concern across digital advertising, but are a bit more acute on mobile because of the different reporting and tracking standards (or lack thereof).
The company recently introduced new tools that attempt to get to the heart of the weak standards in mobile. Among the new products are aggregate reporting, which lets publishers track the performance of each site, and advertiser-level reporting that allows publishers to see which advertisers are buying their impressions.
Mobclix: After struggles between it and parent Velti, which bought Mobclix in 2010, the mobile ad exchange has been up for sale for about a month. As a sign of the difficulties, Velti reported a 47% decrease in revenue since last year. Considering the rapid growth of mobile, that does sound like a particularly bad sign, though it's hard to say how much was Mobclix's fault. Either way, the company hasn't helped Velti. It'll be interesting to see what a different buyer might do with it. Still, the company was once able to give mobile ad networks like AdMob, which was acquired by Google, a run for their money and it is still considered a pioneer in mobile RTB. But history only goes so far.
Smaato: On the plus side, when India's mobile ad market takes off, Smaato will be ready. In many ways it is. The company has noted the depth of its presence in India and the value of it by announcing it reached a run rate of $100 million in annual revenue. As for India itself, Smaato added that India is "the largest RTB revenue generator behind the US with the entire Asia-Pacific region increasing their real-time auctions by more than 50 percent within one single month." While it also has offices in Germany, which serves as its gateway to the European market, and an office in San Francisco, Smaato is likely to see its exposure increase as it settles into western markets.
Inneractive: The 6-year-old Israeli mobile SSP has been zeroing in on the in-app market. Inneractive also heavily interested in building up its mobile video capabilities, as brand campaigns increasingly look for ways to be cross-screen. The company claims to have ongoing deals with 120 advertising distributors from over 200 countries, all the while promising the simplicity of connecting buyers, sellers and developers via a one-line SDK. It's also signed up with all the major ad networks, so it's reach is as extensive as anyone's. But it's still hard to vouch for the quality of the inventory. But that's more of an industry issue than one that's particularly affecting Inneractive.