The latest in our quarterly series spotlights the most significant new ad products and features released in Q4 2020 — from Walgreens’ ad network to YouTube’s audio ads.
We’ll highlight the most interesting and innovative releases from the previous quarter and offer key takeaways for publishers developing their own ad products.
On December 3, Walgreens announced its new, first-party data-driven ad network, Walgreens Advertising Group (WAG). The WAG network is designed to help advertisers form direct connections with more than 100 million myWalgreens loyalty program members, using their first-party loyalty card data, and leverage Walgreens’ more than 9,000 stores and 1 billion daily digital touchpoints.
The Walgreens network will use its in-house data scientists to give advertisers direct access to its customers across multiple ad channels, including digital display, programmatic, social media, video, streaming audio, email, and in-store assets — similar to the new CVS Media Exchange — but with a larger loyalty program to attract CPG brands.
WAG is currently a managed service, but Walgreens plans to launch self-serve options in the coming months.
As noted in our Q3 2020 roundup, which featured the launch of CVS Pharmacy’s new ad network, retail media networks for brands with large brick-and-mortar footprints — including CVS, Walmart, Target, and Kroger — are well positioned to attract CPG brands by combining in-store reach and more omnichannel first-party data than even the largest social media platforms.
With this offering, Walgreens is poised to meet the challenges of third-party cookie deprecation and attract advertisers with higher match rates across its owned and third-party channels — ultimately driving more revenue for their business, which is especially important given the drop in in-store traffic over the past year.
Walgreens’ new network is the latest example of how companies are increasingly building their own walled gardens, which use first-party party and in-house tech to offer more accurate ad targeting and better ad experiences for brands and users alike.
Last November, digital publisher Group Nine announced a new mobile shopping experience — Swipe.Shop — that allows brands to open mobile storefronts across its media websites: The Dodo, POPSUGAR, NowThis, Thrillist, and Seeker.
The eCommerce platform, a mobile-optimized browser, launched just in time for the 2020 holiday shopping season with brands including Gap, Banana Republic, H&M, Kohl’s, Corona, and e.l.f Cosmetics, which had co-branded storefronts with Group Nine publications, such as POPSUGAR’s Beauty Shop and NowThis’s Activitsm Shop. Group Nine reported seven-figure revenue from its launch sponsors, plus affiliate commissions from marketplace sales of non-sponsored items.
In addition to these well-known brands, 50% of Swipe.Shop’s debut storefronts featured products from small businesses and 15% from Black-owned businesses. Small businesses also received over 20 million ad impressions and creative services as part of Group Nine’s media initiative to support businesses struggling during the pandemic.
While the new marketplace does not feature Group Nine editorial content, products displayed are “curated by editorial and social insights” designed to convert content viewers into shoppers.
Swipe.Shop will be refreshed with new brands and products for major gifting seasons throughout the year — with Valentine’s Day up next, followed by Mother’s Day.
As advertisers look for alternatives to Facebook and other large platforms, Swipe.Shop offers an innovative way to connect with Group Nine’s mobile audiences and first-party data.
Group Nine rightly sees the writing on the wall: there is only so much revenue they can drive from banner ads on their content sites. In order to create new revenue streams, they need to be creative and offer ad units that’ll draw higher rates and new types of advertisers. In this case, those advertisers are CPG and B2C brands that may be tired of traditional advertising and looking for marketplace-based sponsored listings and featured content — for which they’ll pay substantially more.
On October 27, TikTok announced the US launch of a new eCommerce partnership with Shopify that allows more than one million brands to create, run, and optimize native, shareable In-Feed video ad campaigns for more than 100 million US TikTok users.
With cross-platform integration, merchants can access the new TikTok channel for Shopify on the Shopify dashboard. The dashboard offers the same core features as the TikTok For Business Ads Manager (featured in our Q3 update), as well as a new single-click pixel that allows for simpler conversion tracking between the two platforms and ad templates designed for eCommerce using brands’ existing images or videos.
Like TikTok’s Back-to-Business ad credit program for SMBs (small to medium-sized businesses), Shopify merchants are granted a $300 ad credit for their first TikTok campaigns.
The US launch, which will extend to international markets this year, also included a week-long, co-branded Hashtag Challenge Plus, #ShopBlack, that allowed more than 40 Black merchants on Shopify to reach new audiences on TikTok with a custom branded effect, music, and content.
As TikTok’s predominantly young user base grows, it continues to innovate its self-serve ad platform to balance feature parity with more established social media competitors with unique partnerships and engaging ad formats that align with TikTok’s user-generated content experience.
Given TikTok’s current status as the most downloaded app of 2020, we expect to see more ad product innovation over the coming year as more advertisers are drawn to its rich first-party data set, flexibility, lower CPMs, and higher performance than rivals Facebook and Instagram.
Early last month, Instagram announced the global launch of ‘Shopping in Reels’ following its October testing announcement (shortly before TikTok announced its Spotify partnership) — and the Reels launch announcement last August.
The new feature allows brands and creators to tag products in Reels short-form videos, which viewers can then tap to buy, save, or learn more about them. The feature expands Instagram shopping across the platform: In-Feed, IGTV, Live, Stories, and now Reels.
Instagram’s ongoing focus on eCommerce puts additional pressure on its competitors — namely TikTok. While TikTok leads the short-form video format, Instagram’s desire to change that will force TikTok to innovate even faster as both platforms look to boost their revenue with sales fees from ‘shoppable’ content.
Unlike traditional video ads, which are served during longer clips, seconds-long short-form videos necessitate a different approach. Product placements in Reels are the short-form equivalent of sponsored listings seen on other eCommerce sites. Their increased use by brands (and Instagram creators looking for revenue-sharing opportunities) makes Shopping in Reels an appealing alternative to other formats — and offer users relevant, contextual ad experiences.
Last fall, LinkedIn launched LinkedIn Stories in the US and Canada, which allow users to create short, conversational TikTok-style videos about themselves that appear on the platform for 24 hours (like Snapchat).
Last month, LinkedIn announced the beta launch of Stories Ads, designed to help brands reach more of their B2B target audiences with the same style of visual storytelling. Stories Ads come in full-screen video and single-image formats, and are served at the top of the LinkedIn mobile app with users’ Stories.
As with LinkedIn’s other ad units, Stories Ads can be targeted by company, job title, and more. LinkedIn plans to expand its launch more broadly this year.
LinkedIn continues to innovate its B2B-focused ad platform, taking advantage of trends and ad units seen in B2C apps like Snapchat and Facebook. The question now is, will this ad unit be effective for them? This is ultimately predicated on the success of their new Stories product — and there’s no guarantee that their users are looking for the TikTok/Snapchat-esque video experience while browsing LinkedIn.
The good news is — it doesn’t hurt to test. And by launching Stories Ads soon after releasing LinkedIn Stories, they also ensure they are monetizing this new product early on.
Google announced several new features and campaign types during Advertising Week last October, all of which indicate Google’s broader machine learning goals.
First, Google has launched the beta version of its new Google Ads Insights pages in the US and UK — and plans to add audience and forecasting data with the expanded rollout this year.
The new Insights pages feature data from Google’s Rising Retail Categories tool, which helps retailers monitor product search categories, as well as related consumer interest predictions and auction insights. Insights pages are designed to help advertisers stay ahead of trends and identify new revenue opportunities.
Advertisers can use Google’s aggregated and anonymized search data to gauge demand for their specific products in different geographic locations — and Google’s recommendations to activate budget, bidding, and keyword optimizations.
Google also introduced a new automated campaign type, Performance Max, designed to run across all inventory — including Display Network, Gmail, Discover, Search, and YouTube — and complement standard Search campaigns.
Available in the Google Ads UI, Performance Max offers several self-serve tools to help advertisers manage and scale their campaigns:
As with other automated campaigns, Google’s machine learning systems serve responsive ads and use Smart Bidding to meet advertisers’ goals.
Lastly, Google announced new, performance-focused Video action campaigns for YouTube and Google video partners, plus testing of direct-response video ad formats specifically for TV screens, citing that over 100 million US viewers watch YouTube via their TV screens each month.
As the world’s top search engine, Google has a unique ability to monitor and leverage changing consumer behaviors for advertisers' benefit. With a reported 96% of brands buying Google Ads in 2020, Google continues to lean into machine learning to maintain its competitive advantage.
While some advertisers have experienced mixed results during the pandemic, we expect many will try using these new tools to stay ahead of trends and maximize their ad budgets in the new year.
In November, YouTube announced the beta launch of new, 15-second audio ads — its first non-video ad format — designed to help brands reach “engaged and ambient” YouTube audiences consuming more music and podcasts on the site and app. The platform also announced new dynamic music lineups across popular genres to help advertisers reach more audiences with the new ad unit.
YouTube audio ads are available for CPM auction campaigns on Google Ads and Display & Video 360. Audio ads offer the same audience insights, campaign measurement, and updated brand safety features as video ad campaigns.
Audio ads will display a static, clickable ad creative, but YouTube is focused on offering advertisers greater brand awareness and consideration in the short term. Alpha testing showed that 75% of audio campaigns increased brand awareness for testers such as Shutterfly.
By expanding to audio ads, YouTube can use its scale of more than 2 billion monthly music listeners to appeal to advertisers concerned that multitasking audiences might miss their visual ads and messages — and drive new revenue by leveraging the almost 30% year-over-year increase in podcast ad spending.
The new ad unit also positions YouTube to compete directly with Spotify, whose audio-first ad strategy has seen declines in recent months but remains encouraged by its surge in paid subscriptions and podcast consumption.
We expect advertisers looking for audio formats will appreciate the ease of creating new campaigns using the Google Ads and DV360 ad platforms with which they’re familiar.
These are just some of the new products and features that launched in the final months of 2020.
Here’s a list of those we didn’t cover here — but that we recommend learning more about:
Jane is the Senior Marketing Manager at Kevel. She enjoys discovering user-first ad platforms and articulating the value of Kevel's ad serving APIs.