Ben Walmsley is VP, Northern Europe at Sizmek, an ad technology company. Here he argues that as online video starts to achieve towards TV-like scale, the industry should be at matching the TV industry when it comes to the quality of the experience. As well as identifying the technical barriers, Walmsley also explains how these problems can be solved with technologies that already exist today.
Online video has come a long way and thankfully the days of it being dismissed as gimmicky and user-generated are now behind us. While various solutions have emerged to overcome the problems that come with a a fragmented media landscape, another form of fragmentation still persists. Advertisers still aren’t being offered a standardised, high quality ad experience, and as a result the experience is often less than optimal. TV has set the gold standard when it comes to quality, so is the video world lagging behind?
Multi-screen equals multiple ad tag problems
Problems develop when a single ad tag is expected to service a variety of formats, notably advanced formats, and screen sizes. For example, an MP4 file may work well on a small-screened device but the quality and density does not suit a full-screen TV. While on mobile, advertisers are faced with users accessing content with varying connections such as 3G, 4G, LTE and Wi-Fi networks – all of which have varying degrees of quality. There is always the option to create customised tags for every format and screen, but when you consider the quality variations across the many devices and networks, it becomes a management headache.
The Way Forward: Single Tag Plus Adaptive Streaming
What is needed is a unified and intelligent ad delivery approach that supports multi-screen services. This can be achieved using a single tag coupled with an adaptive streaming format such as HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) where the video content is segmented into small chunks. It is then sent over HTTP and usually multiple bit rates are encoded so that the advertiser can choose the best video bit rate to deliver an optimal viewing experience based on network conditions.
Third party ad servers, when supported by adaptive streaming, also offer invaluable viewability metrics. This provides an online metric which only tracks impressions that can actually be seen by users, enabling advertisers to understand the real impact of their media investment. This scrutiny by the ad servers extends to rooting out traffic fraud, where fraudsters exploit the system and get paid for fake, non-human traffic. Addressing this serious issue is essential to preserving the integrity of the online ecosystem and for maintaining the trust of marketers.
Another Option: Server-Side Ad Insertion
Another solution is server-side ad insertion combined with advanced transcoding. In this scenario, a single high-quality file is listed in the ad tag. The publisher’s own ad server proactively downloads this file, transcodes it into all the necessary variants, and then stitches the ads into the programming when needed. While this method holds promise, it has the potential to remove the control, insight and screening provided by third-party ad servers.
The Current State of Video Ad Standardisation
Industry bodies such as the IAB continue to foster discussion around a single standardised ad identification process. The IAB has developed the Video Ad Serving Template (VAST), which is the universal specification for serving video ads and supports in-stream video ad formats. IAB has also introduced the Video Player Ad Interface Definition (VPAID), which is the universal specification for interaction between ad units and video players and supports rich interactive media ads, or executable ad units. While these standards have begun the process of improving scalability of video ads across multiple platforms and devices, there is still a long way to go before the quality of TV advertising is attained.
For the time being, single ad tags using adaptive streaming are the best way forward for advertisers committed to high levels of quality, accuracy, and accountability across their display activity. After all, it would be a shame to waste resources producing a creative ad without considering, in detail, how it will be delivered to ensure optimum engagement and impact.