Server-side ad insertion brings data protection into focus

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For many broadcasters today protecting viewers’ privacy is a priority – especially in the light of GDPR in Europe and similar moves in the US, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).  This has promoted a previously unheralded benefit of server-side ad insertion into the spotlight.  In this article I’ll explain why.

The early days of video advertising were a bit of a Wild West: the user experience wasn’t of a very high quality with high repetition of ads and there was no single, trusted form of measurement.  Unbelievable as it may seem, issues such as fluctuating audio and visual quality levels and buffering are still common where client-side ad insertion (CSAI) is used.  For broadcasters traditionally very very focussed on providing a consistent, high-quality user experience, this was unacceptable.  The same applied to advertisers, with such issues impacting how the viewer reacted to ad content – repetitive ads which take an age to load and disrupt a viewer’s favourite programme were not well-received.

It was this need to improve the viewer experience which gave rise to the technique that is now called server-side ad insertion (SSAI).  SSAI involves frame-accurately stitching normalised advertising into a live or VoD stream so that it perfectly matches the quality of the primary content in a way that makes the transition between ad and programme invisible to the viewer.  Yospace’s history in the SSAI space stretches back almost a decade, with our first production deployment  announced at IBC 2011.  Since then we’ve seen a massive swing towards the adoption of this technique, by an industry driven to replicate and guarantee that broadcast-quality experience.

The advent of GDPR – and headlines of major breaches in privacy – has alerted many consumers to the issues of data privacy and protection.  Some of the most popular online platforms have become so as a result of cleverly utilising their customers’ data.  However, the tide is turning (and regulations biting), meaning tracking viewers and playing loose and fast with their data, is no longer acceptable – to regulators, to the industry, or to consumers.

Which leaves broadcasters with a challenge: how can the sector ensure viewers aren’t stuck with repetitive, irrelevant ads, while complying with GDPR and following best practice when it comes to data privacy?  Client-side ad insertion has the potential to expose a viewer’s IP address and cookie information (so, a viewer’s browsing behaviour), potentially allowing third parties to track viewers.  This approach also presents an open door for advertisers to snoop on viewers and use this information to “re-target” them at a lower CPM than the broadcaster commands.

Those broadcasters that have already deployed SSAI have solved this challenge, perhaps not intentionally, but as a result of a by-product of it.  SSAI acts as a piece of middleware between the user’s device – the client – and the ad tech ecosystem, allowing the broadcaster to control how that viewer’s data is shared between the ecosystem.  Viewer experience remains at the heart of SSAI though, and better safeguarding of viewers’ data doesn’t mean a poorer viewer experience.

To ensure a viewer doesn’t see the same ad multiple times (or that an ad break isn’t filled with competing brands in a specific sector), a unique user ID is passed to the ad server for each streaming session and it responds with instructions on which set of ads to stitch into each stream, taking into account capping rules, to avoid ad fatigue.

These factors have contributed to a rise in the adoption of SSAI for VoD in recent years, whereas previously it was primarily considered a tool of live streaming.

The broadcast industry is undergoing constant disruption, with new players and new technologies arriving on the scene (and many disappearing just as quickly).  Viewing trends too can be quick to change: think of the evolution of ad targeting from ‘cool’ to ‘creepy’.  As such, broadcasters must play the long game. Many early adopters of SSAI solutions have achieved this, with viewer experience remaining at the core of their business, and data protection emerging as a long-term and key architectural feature of the technology.

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