The Tech Sessions: Making the Most of Server-Side Ad Insertion

Tech SessionsWhile server-side ad insertion (SSAI) has been possible for a few years now, it’s only recently that it has been pushed to the fore. Here Tal Chalozin, Co-Founder and CTO at Innovid, a video ad technology company, explains how SSAI works, why we’re seeing it being widely adopted, and how to get the best out of it. The Tech Sessions is a series of articles to explain complex topics and to provide the kind of information that can actually be applied to improving video advertising. If you have an idea for an article, would like something explained, or would like to contribute to the series, please get in touch.

In the fast-moving world of online video, there is ongoing debate about the relative benefits of client-side and server-side ad insertion. As broadcasters, publishers and brands grapple the challenge of monetizing digital content, the discussion is an important one. But what does it all mean and why is there so much buzz building around it now?

If we examine the state of online video in 2016, we can see that there are three key elements in play. The most dominant is that the major broadcasters are moving their infrastructure over to IP. The old world where TV sat on one side and online video the other is disappearing – the two are converging into one seamless content experience. It’s an amazing advancement – but with it comes expectation. Viewers expect their online experience to match the awesome TV experience to which they’ve long been accustomed. TV content is high-resolution and doesn’t buffer, lag or hang. The same can’t yet be said of online video. As broadcasters move into IP-based environments, the need to match the quality of the TV experience is a challenge that quickly needs to be addressed.

The proliferation of digital media has added to the challenge. Back in 2007/08, first-phase online video was predominantly a desktop or browser experience. Nowadays it’s available not only on mobile and tablet devices but also via set-top boxes like Sky, BT and Virgin Media and streaming devices like Apple TV, Roku, Xbox and PlayStation. The problem is that each of these platforms has its own infrastructure, forcing broadcasters to maintain a variety of platform-specific software players and ad management systems – and write client-side code in a number of different languages.

The third component is the well-known rise of ad blocking technology. Viewers are increasingly installing client-side software to help them skip ads and move straight to the content they want to see. It’s become the scourge of the industry and, as marketers battle to leverage the reach and power of online video, finding the solution has become the holy grail.

Collectively, these three elements have become a catalyst for moving the logic of advertising from the ‘client’ – the browser or the App on a device or hybrid TV – to the server. These factors haven’t given rise to the birth of server-side ad insertion (SSAI) – it’s been around for a long time – but they’ve certainly provided an impetus for its widespread adoption.

Enter SSAI

So what is it? SSAI is the natural evolution from traditional client-side ad insertion processes that, through the multiplicity of devices and languages, have become a headache to manage and are prone to ad blocking.

Tal Chalozin, CTO, Innovid
Tal Chalozin, Co-Founder and CTO at Innovid

Client-side insertion typically involves real-time communication between ad servers to co-ordinate the streaming of individual ads at pre-determined times once a viewer has requested content. The decision is determined by the client on an ad-by-ad basis, with client servers required to connect with either the marketer’s server, an agency server or, more often than not, both – before eventually serving that individual chunk of advertising content back through the client. It’s a complex flow. What’s more, every insertion provides the opportunity for an ad blocker to intervene.

SSAI, sometimes referred to as ‘ad stitching’, allows publishers to knit their advertising and video content together into one seamless stream – at the CMS level, rather than at the client level. It takes all of the difficult components of the client-side approach – like multi-language coding – out of your hands. What’s more, the server-side approach makes it harder for ad blockers to discern between advertising and core content and, therefore, harder to intervene.

The process relies on something called Manifest Manipulation; the real-time creation of a playlist made up of fragments of content – advertising and core content. Manifest Manipulation defines when all the individual pieces are going to be streamed and presents them to the client frame-by-frame. Ad blockers do not know which frames are adverts and which are not. Manifest manipulation is activated by the client-side download of an M3U8 file. These playlist files, developed by Apple, are the basis for HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) and are now widely used for Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP.

The rise of SSAI has opened up a broader debate on how buyers and sellers of online video transact. Marketers naturally require accurate and transparent analytics to ensure they’re being billed accurately according to the number of eyeballs their ads have earned. However, with industry guidelines stipulating that audience tracking happens client-side, the SSAI approach could potentially be seen as problematic. The traditional method of measuring by pixel cannot apply when everything happens server-side. To overcome this, two sub-genres of SSAI have been developed. The first is called client-side SDK; a small piece of code that sits on the client that can do smart decisioning and fire a pixel. An alternative, where there is no client-side technology, is for the same code to sit 100 percent on the server. These hybrid solutions are helping to reassure marketers that ad billing reconciliation is accurate.

SSAI is proving to be an effective antidote to ad blocking. But it also brings additional benefits that are helping brands and broadcasters meet the present-day challenges of online video. Sounds good. But how do you do it?

Step #1: Find the right provider

The first step is to find the right technology partner. Being SSAI-ready requires new technology that may or may not to be part of your existing ad server stack. The right partner will be able to manage manifest manipulation and SSAI – and will pair the new technology with your existing ad servers.

Step #2: Integrate with the right video ad platforms

It’s important that your new provider integrates with marketer-focused video ad platforms. If they don’t, you’ll be jeopardising your chance to exploit the innovative and creative opportunities that modern video technologies present. SSAI doesn’t just provide a pain-free solution to ad blocking, but when integrated with the right video ad platform, it becomes an engine for improving the quality of online video creative. Marketer-focused video ad platforms allow marketers to deliver interactive video and personalised campaigns – enhancing the viewer experience and propelling customer engagement levels with high-quality interaction.

Step #3: Make sure you’re VAST 4

In January 2016, the IAB updated its guidelines that define the core specification for delivering video ads on the Internet. VAST 4 introduced a specification for SSAI and with it, introduced a standardised way to transact between buyers and sellers in this new TV-ready world. The main take-home from this is simple: whether you’re a broadcaster, publisher, brand or marketer, whoever you work with on the manifest or server side must be VAST 4 compliant. If they’re not, you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to monetising content.

Step #4: Look ahead: take a walk on the client-side

Expanding your infrastructure to support SSAI will almost certainly move you closer to addressing the three main challenges facing online video. You’ll have TV quality video that works easily across multiple devices, and better technology to battle ad blocking. You can sleep a little better at night. But where next? Well, the future still includes a walk on the client-side. To deliver a truly interactive experience – one that’s personalised to individual viewers – you’ll still want to be creative at the client level. You may want to introduce red-button functionality or ask viewers to select a specific option. Anything is possible. To achieve it, make sure you look out for a platform provider that offers client-side SDKs to allow for advanced ad capabilities. That way, you get the best of all worlds.

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