Spaceback's Co-Founders on Innovating Social Ads

Jane O'Hara
Jane O'Hara
Spaceback's Co-Founders on Innovating Social Ads

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.

Together, Joe and Casey share their inspiration for Social Display, the lessons they learned while building the new ad unit, and their advice to Product Managers looking to build innovative ad platforms.
"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

What first inspired you to build the Social Display ad unit?

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

How do you describe your ad category to those who are unfamiliar?

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).

The user experience is similar to encountering social media posts “in the wild” rather than seeing a banner ad, and as a result audiences engage at significantly higher rates.

You started testing Social Display in 2017. What are your most memorable early mistakes?

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.

Although we may have wasted a few cycles it made us more confident as we developed our best practices and it became obvious to those brands and agencies what makes us different. One of the main reasons these units work is because they don’t look like traditional banner ads!

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.

What did your building process for this ad platform look like? Any unexpected surprises?

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.

How did the Social Display build compare to other platforms you’ve built/worked on?

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.

How has Spaceback evolved since your initial launch? Has the business/product model changed at all?

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.

You work with a number of top brands, including Audi, Burger King, Coach, and Coca-Cola. Are there commonalities in their use cases and/or “aha” moments?

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!

Another pro-tip is to really lean into the social media-like aspect of Social Display. That means that there is an opportunity to reach customers more frequently with more variety just like you do on 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.

What effects is the pandemic having on your business? How have your customers’ needs changed since Q1?

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.

As social content tends to be more relevant and adaptive than your average banner ad and brands were looking for a more human/less transactional approach to paid media, it put Spaceback in a unique position to help brands get back in-market with the right kind of messaging.

How is the current Facebook boycott impacting Social Display?

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.

How do you see the ad tech industry changing over the coming months and years? Do you predict more brands will lean into content vs. traditional ads?

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.

It’s fascinating to see emerging platforms like TikTok encourage brands to focus on content over ads.

What advice would you offer Product Managers looking to build innovative ad platforms?

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.

Our earliest adopters wanted features that we still don’t have, but they are still partners because they support where we are going and are on the journey with us.

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 O'Hara
Jane O'Hara

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.