I recently read Spaceback CEO Casey Saran’s blog post on Social Display advertising and wanted to learn more about this innovative new ad unit, which combines the look and feel of organic social media posts with paid promotion — outside of social media platforms’ walled gardens. Think: a promoted Instagram post instead of a banner ad in a mobile feed. I thought publishers would find Social Display ads as intriguing as I do.
Casey was quick to respond to my interview request and introduce me to Spaceback COO and co-founder Joe Hall.
"Where most ad tech companies are building flashier and more disruptive experiences, we have focused on preserving the authenticity of social which ultimately results in better user experience and better performance."Casey Saran, Spaceback
Casey: The idea for Social Display ads came from our desire to turn ad space into content space. Brands are creating so much incredible content on social media that people are choosing to like, follow, engage with, etc. Meanwhile, people are doing everything they can to ignore standard-issue display ads. We wanted to take these high quality user experiences that are typically locked in social environments and enable brands to leverage them everywhere.
Joe: Quite simply: We wanted to see what an ad tech company would look like that put the user first.
"The user is a complete afterthought for most ad tech companies who prioritize the buyer or the seller. We believe the buyer and seller are most successful when they put the user first...and we have the data to back that up."Joe Hall, Spaceback
Casey: Social Display is the distribution of social media posts outside the walled gardens of social media platforms by way of existing media buying infrastructure (i.e., the programmatic pipes).
Joe: In the early days, we dealt with a lot of brands and agencies who liked the idea of Social Display, but insisted on spending cycles to further customize the creative — larger logos, customized fonts, defined button shapes. We found that the more cycles we spent, the less social the units felt and the more like a traditional banner ad they looked. Ultimately, these customized social display ads didn’t perform as well.
Casey: To echo Joe’s point, we learned the importance of authenticity early on. The reason social works in the first place is it is more genuine than traditional ads. Where most ad tech companies are building flashier and more disruptive experiences, we have focused on preserving the authenticity of social which ultimately results in better user experience and better performance.
Joe: The first step in our building process was to get Chris Baclig on board (our CTO). Chris ran an engineering team at Rubicon Project that knew the Doubleclick platform better than anyone else on the planet and we trusted Chris 100%. It took a lot of convincing to get Chris to leave Tune and join Spaceback full time as our CTO, but once he said yes, Chris was quick to hire an engineering team in Seattle that was responsible for the first iteration of our platform.
Casey: I’d say the most unexpected surprise for us was how well the platform performed out-the-gate! Our very first campaign was with UGG and our creative generated over 2.5x better ROAS than the standard banners they were previously running. I can’t think of any other example in my career where something worked so well from day one.
Casey: What really stands out for me is how much fun we are having. Let’s face it, ad tech isn’t always the sexiest tech to build, but sprinkle in some social media and focus on good user experience and we’ve come up with something that is actually fun to build and fun to use!
Joe: The only thing I’d add is that other ad tech platforms tend to cater to the corporate decision-makers with little regard to the end user who has hands-on-keyboard. Spaceback cares about the user experience of the person using our platform as well as the experience of the person who will eventually see the Social Display unit. A good user experience is core to who we are at Spaceback.
Casey: When we first started Spaceback, we had clients that wanted us to not only provide Social Display ad formats, but also wanted us to place the media buy for them. This meant some big checks for us early on, but it also meant that we were responsible for all the day-to-day management of the media buy. Our head of client services is a guy named Brady Akers who is probably one of the best in the world at managing media buys, and despite his expertise, he was actually the one to suggest that most brands we were working with already had a process in place for managing programmatic buying and that we should fit into brands existing buying processes vs trying to win RFPs with the fully managed approach.
Joe: The commonality across all of the brands we work with is that they have a strong presence on social media. A lot of people ask us what verticals Spaceback best supports. We have learned over time that Spaceback works well for any vertical so long as the brand has a good presence in social media!
You don’t need to use the same three banner ads when you have a wealth of social posts being added regularly that you can draw from. We are in the early innings of Social Display and the best brands are beginning to adapt.
Casey: The pandemic has been a roller coaster for us just like everyone else in digital media, or any industry for that matter. At first we saw a lot of our advertisers (especially in travel and retail) pause spend in March, with some of them still paused. Despite the abrupt changes in paid media, most brands remained active on social — at least with their organic social presence.
Casey: I see the current Facebook boycott as a wake up call for many brands, whether or not they are participating in the boycott, as a sign that they need to reduce their overall dependence on social platforms.
Joe: We’re working with many brands participating in the boycott, some we were already working with and some are new partners, but they are all using Social Display for the same reasons.
"Brands know that their most engaging content and best user-experience are on social media. This puts everyone in the programmatic ecosystem at a massive disadvantage."Joe Hall
Spaceback levels the playing field by unlocking these experiences from the walled gardens and making it easy for brands to deliver them everywhere! This was powerful before the boycott, but it’s now in the spotlight more than ever before and resulting in a lot of new interest in Spaceback.
Casey: When we first started Spaceback, Joe and I said we were on a mission to turn ads into content, and this is a trend much larger than Spaceback.
Joe: Find people you enjoy working with. Building a platform from scratch will take longer than you ever imagined.
Casey: Exactly what Joe said. The only thing I would add is that it’s important to find partners who are bought into your vision.
Casey Saran is co-founder and CEO of Spaceback, the first platform to bridge the gap between social and paid media. As a long time product lead/digital advertising veteran, Casey has held senior positions at Admeld, Google (twice), Yieldmo, iSocket, and Rubicon Project. He is also a champion disc golfer and an active musician/recording artist.
Joe Hall is co-founder and COO of Spaceback. Previously, Joe led Design at ad tech companies iSocket and Rubicon Project before co-founding Spaceback. He is an award winning filmmaker and advertising agency innovator working within the WPP and Publicis Groupe family of agencies. Joe holds a Bachelor of Science from Miami University and a Master of Science from the VCU Brandcenter.
Many thanks to Casey and Joe for sharing their insights, experiences, and advice.
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.