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What is the Microsoft Audience Network (MSAN)?

What is the Microsoft Audience Network? How does it differ from Microsoft search campaigns?

Microsoft Audience Network (MSAN) is a set of incremental and premium native placements beyond that of the Microsoft Search Network (Bing, AOL, MSN and Yahoo) across devices. For those not familiar with native display, it means that the ads will be displayed in a way that looks more natural and in-keeping with the rest of the page content - whether integrated into articles or just visually similar to the existing page.

While the Search Network is targeted through keywords and their respective match types, MSAN is targeted via user signals e.g. demographic information, interests, search history, page content and other signals (more of an audience-based campaign format like Google’s Discovery campaigns), see below for more on targeting types and strategy.

There are two ways you can reach the Audience Network, one is to expand your existing search campaign targeting to include native placements, and the other is to create a dedicated Audience Network campaign with specific budget, targeting and KPIs. The latter is what this blog will focus on, since the set-up and decision process is a bit more complicated for the dedicated campaigns than the search expansion. We would usually advise splitting these out into separate campaigns with a specific budget, strategy and KPI, for better targeting and measurement.

If you’re interested in the search expansion, or want to check to see if your search campaigns are already targeting the audience network, you can pull a report to check this – in this link it details how you can pull a report in-platform to see performance by website URL. There have been fairly recent changes made about how to opt in/opt out of audience placements for search campaigns – in the past you could add a -100% bid adjustment on Microsoft audience network placements, however now you’ll need to add these as website exclusions for most accounts on an opt-out basis.

What are the Microsoft Audience Network placements?

MSAN allows you to reach potential customers across devices on IAS-certified, brand-safe properties such as Outlook.com, Fox Business, Bing, CBS Sports, MSN and Microsoft Edge with native text, image and product ads while they’re browsing, checking emails and searching.

The potential reach via the Audience Network is huge, with an estimated 498 million monthly unique visitors to MSN, 11 billion global monthly searches on Bing, 675m global professionals using LinkedIn and 200 million monthly unique visitors to Outlook.

Microsoft Audience Network Placements

Where do Microsoft Audience Ads sit in the paid search funnel?

Audience Ads uses interest and intent-based targeting instead of the keyword targeting used for search, so it does reach people at a different stage in their consumer journey, and across placements other than the search engine results page (SERP). The funnel stage does depend on the type of audience targeted e.g. prospecting (new customers) vs remarketing (Existing customers) and even within this, there are different types of targeting available e.g. affinity and demographic targeting are higher in the funnel than an in-market audience.

Another consideration is the combined impact of running both formats. Using both search and native (audience) strategies can maximise performance - driving incremental visits and conversions via native, but also having a halo effect on existing search activity due to higher awareness and intent.

Microsoft stats show that users exposed to Microsoft Audience Ads are 3x more likely to search for your brand, 4x more likely to visit your site and 5.5x more likely to purchase from you. You can read more about the test here, but in a nutshell users were separated into four groups with no exposure to ads, exposure to Search Ads only, Audience ads only, and exposure to both. The study suggests that it’s mutually beneficial for your search and audience campaigns to run both at the same time and to factor that in when thinking of your ‘always on’ strategy.

What are the audience targeting options for Microsoft Audience Network Campaigns?

You could choose to create multiple campaigns or ad groups for segmenting users - either based on KPIs, budget splits or reporting needs. Many advertisers might choose a prospecting/remarketing split based on performance, or business need e.g. a campaign per market, if budget comes from localised pots, or a campaign per product line if the creative and landing pages are very specific.

The targeting is set at ad group level and you can choose and combine from the following types of targeting: location, age, gender, audience list, company, industry, job function. The professional attributes are based on LinkedIn data.
For audience lists, you can choose from similar audiences, remarketing audiences, in-market audiences, dynamic remarketing, and custom audiences.

Note that the more types of targeting you apply, the smaller the reach and potentially more expensive it will be. You can also check your reach while you’re editing your ad group targeting as it will show your possible monthly impressions on the right side of the page. You can also choose to exclude audiences e.g., exclude your existing customers from your prospecting campaign. You can find more information about targeting from Microsoft here.

What types of ad formats can I serve on the Microsoft Audience Network?

There are three different types of ads: image-based responsive ads, text-based and feed-based ads. The standard ad format is the static image ad, which you can find the creative specifications for below. To show product or feed-based ads you’ll need to make sure your UET tag is set-up with additional parameters than the basic set-up, with Product ID and Page Type and you can then use this to create dynamic remarketing lists based on general visitors, product searchers, product viewers, shopping cart abandoners and past buyers. These ads look similar to shopping ads or product ads across different properties e.g. Google and Meta. Finally, for the text-based ads, you can run these by expanding your existing search campaign into the audience network and adding image extensions. In fact, Microsoft recommends that you prepare for Microsoft Audience Network campaigns by applying and testing image extensions across your search campaigns first.

Microsoft Audience Ads creative specifications:

We recommend uploading a minimum of a square (1200x1200 pixel) and rectangle image (1200x628) which can be re-cropped in-platform for the other image sizes required - as well as accompanying text assets.

The more images uploaded, the more creative insights can be gathered and the more testing opportunities available. For advertisers that prefer greater creative control, we’d recommend supplying one image in every size to avoid the need for re-cropping in platform, and then different creative sets can be tested at ad level instead, with multiple ads created based on creative theme. The full specifications from Microsoft can be found here.

More recently, advertisers now have the option to use video assets with MSAN campaigns for better storytelling and greater connection with customers. Microsoft recommends short videos between 6-30 seconds; however, you can upload videos up to 2 minutes long to test performance. For more details and full specifications, please check here. Video assets are still in beta or unavailable in some markets and for some verticals so it’s best to check with Microsoft support or your account representative if you have one.

For advertisers with limited creative capacity, you can also make use of up to 300 million images on Shutterstock, integrated in the Microsoft Ads platform - however custom-created images based on previous learnings and best practice are recommended.

What bidding options or automated bid strategies are available for Microsoft Audience Network campaigns?

Microsoft Audience Network campaigns can currently only use manual CPC bidding, with the budget set at campaign level, bid set at ad group level and bid adjustments applicable across individual audiences, demographics e.g., age, gender and devices, with a bid adjustment range from +900% to -90%. This is something that may change over time as the product develops and becomes more automated. It would be useful for advertisers to have the ability to optimise towards conversions or revenue, especially when testing different approaches and audiences and to compare performance with other campaigns e.g. Google Display and Discovery.

Are Microsoft Audience Campaigns compatible with other platforms?

At the time of writing, Microsoft Audience campaigns have limited compatibility with other platforms e.g. Search Ads 360 (SA360), Campaign Manager 360 (CM360), and Adobe. However, the campaign type is compatible with Google Analytics and they have URL tracking settings that can be configured if you require custom tagging. There is also the option to set up manual keyword tracking by creating a ‘dummy’ or ‘placeholder’ campaign and then assigning the ad group IDs to your ads, which is a good workaround to get floodlight data on the campaigns, however you won’t be able to see impression, click or cost data. Tracking options may improve in the future as more advertisers test MSAN campaigns and Microsoft continues to develop the product further.

While they might not be compatible with many platforms in terms of reporting and measurement, Microsoft has added in some extra compatibility for the import stage. When setting up a new Audience Network campaign, you have the option to import from Google Ads or Facebook to get it up and running quickly. For the import from Google Ads, you will need to select your Google Ads account and then import standard, dynamic or smart display campaigns, (not discovery campaigns) and you can choose your exact import settings in the ‘advanced import’ section. For the Facebook Ads import option you will also need to connect your Microsoft account to your Facebook account, and you can select which campaigns and settings you’d like to import. Detailed instructions for the Facebook import are linked here.

How do Microsoft Audience Network campaigns compare to Google Discovery and Google Display campaigns?

Microsoft Audience Network campaigns are fairly similar to Google Display and Discovery campaigns in that they’re both visual, image and/or product-based ads - they can both be linked to Merchant Centres and product feeds to show dynamic product ads. Discovery campaigns have an additional ad format: carousel ads, which are card-based, swipe-able ads very similar to Meta’s carousel ads.

The various campaigns are also targeted in similar ways via user interests and intent, however the suite of audiences available differ slightly by platform and campaign type. For example, MSAN campaigns can target professional attributes due to data available from LinkedIn, while in Google Ads you have more options e.g. targeting Google Analytics custom audiences, YouTube audiences, custom affinity and custom intent. Google’s Display and Discovery campaigns also have more bidding options - they can use conversion and revenue-based bidding and some can even optimise towards view-through conversions and offline conversions e.g. Store Visits. This depends on the product and stage of development - for example, including view through conversions was in beta stage and only available to certain advertisers. However, one of the most important differences is the placements available - with Google Discovery showing ads across the Gmail (Promotions & Social tabs), Google Discovery Feed and the YouTube Home and Watch Next feeds, Google Display ads showing across the Google Display Network and Microsoft Audience ads showing across properties such as Outlook.com, Fox Business, Bing, CBS Sports, MSN and Microsoft Edge. This means that running each of these campaign types drives incremental reach and targets a wide range of users in various stages of intent. For example, a user who sees an ad on CBS sports is likely in a different stage to someone on the Gmail Promotions tab. Each placement could be an important brand touchpoint to guide the user towards action.

How to get started with Microsoft Audience Network campaigns

The most obvious place to start is to read all of the online resources e.g. About Microsoft Audience Ads, How Do I Create an Audience Campaign, 10 reasons why the Microsoft Audience Network is a must-buy and the various other resources linked on this page. There are also forums, YouTube videos and blogs that might be helpful. It’s also worth considering whether the format is available in the market you’d like to target – they’re currently available across many markets including the UK, US, DE and FR, however new markets are often added and there’s a full list here.

As a first step, Microsoft recommends applying image extensions in your existing search campaigns and opting into the audience network for testing. However, if you already have positive results from Google Display or Discovery, or if you want to separate out this type of targeting by budget and KPI, it might be best to start with an ideation session.

Consider the following questions – they’re not exhaustive, but they should provide a good foundation:

  • How much budget do you have available?
  • Have you analysed and considered whether the budget would be more impactful in an MSAN campaign test or reinvested into an existing channel or campaign type?
  • Which location[s] will you target?
  • What is your KPI?
  • How will the campaign[s] align with your wider digital marketing and/or marketing strategy and funnel? For example your wider business and marketing objectives
  • How will you structure your campaigns? E.g. product/service, market, audience
  • Who do you want to target? What audience lists do you have available already?
  • Does MSAN align with your target audience’s media consumption and brand research, discovery and purchase touchpoints?
  • Will you target both new and existing customers?
  • Do you need to apply any audience exclusions?
  • Do you have any 1st party data available? E.g. website visitors, customer lists
  • How does your audience approach impact your creative, KPIs and budgets?
  • Do you want to opt into product-based ads via MSAN? Do you need to set up an advanced version of the UET tag or is this already implemented?
  • What creative do you have available from Google Ads, paid social or display? Do you need additional creative to be briefed in?
  • Are there any creative tests you’d like to run? How will you measure this?
  • How do you want to run the campaigns? Always on or in short bursts to support specific activations?
  • How will you phase your budget based on the length of the campaign?
  • How will you measure success?
  • In which platform will you measure performance? How can you integrate it within existing reports or dashboards?
  • What learnings do you already have for similar formats? E.g. Google Discovery, Google Display
  • How often will you update your creative?
  • How long will it take to build out and launch the campaigns? Will you want to coordinate it with other channels or platforms?
  • Are there any other requirements for settings? E.g. ad schedules, devices - for example, if your call centre can only take leads during certain hours
  • Do you need to apply any URL tagging? E.g. tracking templates, final URL suffix or custom parameters
  • Do you want to exclude any IP addresses?
  • Do you have any account-level website exclusion lists set-up for brand safety? Do you have a broader brand safety procedure in place that you can replicate in-platform?
  • Do you have suitable landing pages for the audience and creative?

If you’re not sure where to start with these questions, feel free to reach out via our Contact Us page.