How Online Advertising Is Like Buying an Airline Seat


ADOTAS – Today I find myself again on an aircraft flying to the mecca of advertising, New York, to meet with media buyers and food publishers. Shortly after takeoff, I realize this flight is going to be different than others. Today it dawns on me that buying online advertising is a lot like purchasing seats on an airplane. Let me explain.

Travelers have long understood two tenets of purchasing airline tickets. First, the more you’re willing to pay for your seat, the more legroom you’ll get. And secondly, very seldom do two passengers, even those in adjacent seats, pay the same price.

The same things can be said about purchasing online advertising. Increasingly popular among advertisers and their agencies are high visibility ad placements, sometimes referred to as “beyond the banner.” Like buying airline tickets, there are bargains to be had if you know where to find them. And like frequent flyers looking to secure a seat, you’ll gain better location – and thus more quality impressions – if you’re willing to purchase at a level above coach.

Taking this analogy further, online ad buyers – including advertising agencies, brands direct, Demand Side Platforms (DSPs) or retargeters – can generally find four “classes of seating.” My goal is to highlight at a glance the value in one tier of advertising products or placements over another, so buyers have the data they need to service their clients or organizations in the manner
that’s most suitable.

Most everyone has had the opportunity to travel by air, and even if they haven’t experienced anything but coach, they understand the benefits of upgrading to business class or first class.

In the first class cabin, there is more legroom in the form of stronger branding, greater intrusiveness and, as a result, more eyeballs. Coach travelers in the web advertising arena will still arrive at their intended destination – an online presence and resulting impressions commensurate with that web page – but they may find themselves envying those who splurged for business class or the perks of first class. (It’s here where the analogy falls short, since while first class on the airlines is no longer the fine-china-and-champagne traveling experience it used to be, first class in terms of your online ad purchase offers benefits that are still widely sought after and will have your competitors wishing they could get past the velvet curtain.)

The accompanying image (see below) breaks down the purchasing options available to ad buyers, at least as I view them.

First Class Cabin

For those who want the best experience with no expense spared — that is, to make the strongest impression — the first class cabin includes those advertising techniques that are proven to capture the most attention. Backgrounds skins, running across multiple sites, not only provide advertisers a great branding experience, but encourage high levels of user engagement, especially
when paired with a 100 percent share of voice roadblock. Billboards or pushdowns are a great creative solution for making an impression on the first page load of the day. Finally, pre-roll video advertising has taken off, with the average advertiser booking a 30-second spot with a 300 x 250 — there are few better ways to engage the site visitor.

Business Class

Not everyone can spring for first class, of course, so business class would typically include a very comfortable assortment of advertising options to build brand awareness – all beyond the banner. Integration is on the minds of many media buyers and planners, so that’s largely what the business class cabin is about. Examples might include sponsored blogs, where website bloggers
write entries about your brand in a conversational style. Or contextual advertising solutions, which allow advertisers to own keywords, food groups or even cuisine searches. Interstitials provide advertisers an exceptional creative execution with large real estate and 100 percent share of voice on the page (these are great with video), and branded pages allow for deep content integration.

Premium Economy

Premium economy is the sweet spot for the private ad exchange, offering a range of appealing options for the rank-and-file flyer. These are tried and true advertising methods that can build awareness without breaking the ad budget. These may include above-the-fold inventory to ensure eyeballs every time the page loads, 300 x 600 inventory, and long-term retargeting and behavioral targeting to get your advertising messages across in a more subtle way. In premium economy, programmatic buyers are offered first look at inventory, effectively cherry-picking the users they want from a variety of tiers, in real time, at rates that are generally dictated by supply and demand. Aside from buying directly from the marketplace, advertisers can layer in data enabling more precise targeting and fewer wasted impressions.


Like basic seating on an airline, coach class will get you to your desired destination – an online ad presence – with few perks. Nonetheless, coach buyers can choose from nearly the entire gamut of display ads: 300 x 250, 160 x 600, and 728 x 90. This option is for the “leisure traveler” who wants to gain a foothold online but has a limited budget or isn’t yet acclimated to the private ad exchange process.

Programmatic media buying through the private ad exchange allows advertisers to run campaigns at scale, quickly and cost-effectively, across a broad spectrum of websites. It’s a great way for advertisers to build brand awareness and reach an engaged audience on sites featuring content relevant to their products. Because the process may be new to some, it’s helpful to know where different forms of advertising fit in the whole display advertising ecosystem.

Inventory may not be quite as limited as the number of seats on an airplane, but the basics of supply and demand – and the cost variances as supply of the most desirable real estate dwindles – still apply. The question advertisers need to ask themselves before going in is, “Am I a first class passenger, or a coach passenger?”


  1. Benjamin,

    Thanks for the good read. Dissecting the digital ad market can be a bit dry at times, but you managed to do so in an engaging and informative fashion. Really appreciate the breakdown and your thoughts about each segment.


    Brendan @cloudninemedia


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