Online video has come a long way, but most of the advancement in the quality of audience experience has been limited to programming. Content distributors have gone to great lengths to deliver a TV-like experience with their online content, yet in far too many instances audiences have to suffer through less-than-optimal video during ad breaks. It does not have to be this way.
Sizmek’s Douglas wants multiple online advertisements to be delivered as a single tag, combined with support for adaptive streaming formats such as HLS.
With a large and growing percentage of viewers interacting with content on Internet-connected TVs and mobile devices, the number of viewers experiencing poor-quality ads will only grow. Content owners who don’t address this problem will quickly find themselves with declining audience numbers or missed opportunities in the evolving over-the-top and mobile video markets.
Separate Delivery, Separate Challenges
Unlike television, where programming and ads are all delivered through a common infrastructure, video ads are delivered separately online. While content distributors rely on their own online video platform for content and their own ad server for some of the ads, advertisers often use a third-party ad server as well. Every time an ad break occurs, the publisher processes an advertiser’s ad “tag,” with the video file specified in that tag sent to the player by the third-party ad server.
The Dilemma: Video Not Supported
The dilemma arises because, as publishers increasingly operate on a number of multiscreen platforms, they don’t adequately support advanced video formats in those ad tags. The results are that there are either separate tags for separate devices—which is a nightmare to manage—or a single tag, in which case multiscreen distributors typically use the same low-quality MP4 file for a small- to medium-sized player as they do for the full-screen connected TV environment. When you think about mobile and the challenging dynamics of users being connected to 3G, 4G, LTE and Wi-Fi networks—all with varying degrees of quality—there’s a good chance the ad experience will likely be just as jarring.
One Solution: Single Tag Plus Adaptive Streaming
One solution is to leverage a single tag, but combine it with support for adaptive streaming formats such as HLS. We’ve been using these formats for years for programming, but content distributors’ infrastructure rarely supported them for third-party ad servers until recently.
With a single tag and adaptive streaming, not only will audiences benefit from a higher-quality and more enjoyable experience, but advertisers will see higher performance as well. Why? Simply put: control and optimization. One of the many reasons a brand centralizes its online video advertising is to control the experience that audiences have with its commercials. The brand can sequence ads across platforms and distributors to build a stronger narrative. Brand managers can make real-time decisions about which creative has the highest performance or is trending on social networks. They can even make creative changes on the fly or personalize creative at scale.
For advertisers running across ad networks and exchanges, third-party ad serving also provides an independent source for ad verification and viewability statistics. Third-party ad serving gives these advertisers peace of mind that their media dollars are not wasted on poor-quality or fraudulent impressions.
Alternate Solution: 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 and optimization provided by third-party ad servers.
Ad Serving and Audience Experience Optimized
Advertisers are optimizing billions upon billions of ad impressions daily. Content distributors with sponsored content who circumvent the process by not allowing real-time decisions of creative to be controlled by their own third-party ad server could be in for a rude awakening.
One potential workaround for this limitation is industry adoption of Ad-ID. Surprisingly, the digital advertising ecosystem has yet to fully adopt any form of standardized identification for its creative, but the use of such an ID would make it easier to continue using a single ad tag and facilitate instructions being passed in near real time between distributors’ ad servers and third-party ad servers.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) continues to foster discussion in this area among content owners, online video platform providers and third-party ad servers. A solution is sure to emerge, but it’s not likely to happen overnight. Until that time, it makes sense to use what we have today. Single-tag ad serving using HLS offers a practical and easily deployable solution, so let’s not hold it back any longer from the advertising that supports our core business.
John Douglas is director of product strategy at Sizmek, a multiscreen ad serving platform based in New York City.