Making Sense of Online Video Advertising

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Advertisers are understandably enthusiastic about advertising that encourages the “call to action” more strongly (as well as collecting more data on user interactions), and VPAID ensures that the interactive ad is just a “black box,” as far as the player is concerned. The player receives a VAST response, but inside a VPAID ad is referenced, and the player knows when to start and stop it, for example -- it just doesn’t care about the interactivity.

In summary, with VAST and VPAID, us video folk ought to be able to get on with the delivery. The marketing guys could carry on creating even more interactive ads that bring in the revenue that fuels our industry ... whether we like ads or not!

Brave New Multidevice World

If all we had was a Flash player, on iOS and Android, then consistency, not inconsistency, would rule, and Mr. Spock’s human half would be happy (although Scotty may worry that “the CPU canna handle the load much longer”). However, as you know, iOS and modern versions of Android don’t support the Flash player plug­in.

European company Videoplaza was among the first ad platforms to deliver video advertising to mobile devices.

“With mobile, HTML5 is increasingly being used and such interoperability is immature,” says Videoplaza’s Tom Hudspith, head of sales engineering. “There are a huge range of devices and browsers often dealing with HTML5 slightly differently. Unlike with Flash, in HTML5 just because a piece of code works for one device there is no guarantee that it will work for others.”

In addition, as Hudspith says, a single encoded video format that plays back in all HTML5capable browsers doesn’t yet exist: “The HTML5 video format battle rages on between browsers, meaning creative must be produced in multiple different renditions in order to be playable on the majority of devices.”

I can see Spock’s eyebrow raising -- an inconsistent standard! Fascinating. And illogical.

So how does each device and OS behave today?

Understanding the Differences

To start with, we have to understand that behaviour varies with the three types of player, by function:

1. Plug-ins, e.g., Flash Player and Silverlight, designed to provide common playback on each different browser

2. Browser’s own HTML5 player, e.g., Chrome’s HTML5 player (not so much a stand­alone player, as the part of the browser that implements the <video> element in HTML5)

3. Native player, e.g., the Media Player on iPhones and iPods, which only plays back in full screen on small devices

See Table 1 for a more detailed look at devices, players, and functionality.

Table 1. Device types and their playback functionality 

Important Limitations With Mobile Devices

Already, you may see a couple of key issues for advertisers. On non­Flash devices you can’t interact with a full­screen video ad. So that means you can’t click through to an advertiser’s webpage or deploy VPAID ads, which usually use SWF files, although basic VAST pre-rolls remain possible.

You also can’t autostart the video on iOS, no doubt because Apple devices are often on mobile data tariffs and users need to be protected from bill shock.

From a tracking perspective, on iOS you also can’t fire off events such as quartiles -- although the workaround tends to be to fire off the impression event just before the ad playback starts and fire off all the quartiles in a machine­gun burst when the ad has completed.

But isn’t there just a simple answer? We can create dedicated apps for mobile devices. George Meek, managing director of European operations at Unicorn Media doesn’t agree.

“Apps are just a barrier in front of video content,” he says. “Does a user really want a different app for every single broadcaster or video provider? If you go to the broadcaster’s website, things should just play. The BBC iPlayer mobile website video works brilliantly without an app. Why don’t others do it like the BBC? Because they can’t monetise it!”

Vendor Approaches to Mobile Limitations

Brightcove works with many ad partners, including Videoplaza, and it is constantly improving its Smart Player framework. “Our Video Cloud Smart Players automatically adapt the video experience to account for operating system and browser inconsistencies and give media companies confidence that their ad integrations will work consistently and reliably across both HTML5 and Flash­based mobile devices,” says Brightcove’s Gaydon.

Still, there can be limitations in usability, specifically delays when switching from adverts to features. Unicorn Media (run by Limelight Network’s founding CEO and industry veteran Bill Rinehart) takes a single video file and allows it to be monetised on any device, significantly improving the user experience.

Many mobile devices now support HTTP-based segmented streaming delivery protocols such as HLS, the predominant delivery method on iOS and newer Androids as well as many STB and connected televisions. In this delivery method, “slices” or fragments of video are created, usually around 4–10 seconds long.

So let’s say you can manipulate the order and content of the fragments so that the first three fragments (for example) are an advert, then 100 fragments are part of the feature, then the next six fragments are an ad break, and the rest are the remaining fragments of the feature (Figure 3). You’ve effectively managed to introduce pre-rolls and mid-rolls into long form content on mobile devices -- vital for monetisation experiences that match commercial TV -- without the player needing to load and unload different video files. Unicorn Once’s Dynamic Permutation Layer adds an additional layer of intelligence, ensuring that the content is targeted to the correct device and bandwidth.

Figure 3. Scenario for delivering ads within a segmented streaming delivery protocol such as HLS 

This gives a viewer a smooth playback experience, no different from watching the feature on its own, without the adverts. “You can now deliver pre-rolls, mid-rolls and post-rolls, including multiple adverts in an ad break,” says Meek. “It’s just replicating the broadcast experience.”

With Unicorn Once, it’s also possible to fire off the quartiles in concert with the delivery of the segment that contains that quartile, which is, as we’ve seen, very important for advertisers to be sure which ads have been seen, along with when and where.

Not only can HTTP streaming allow for dynamic ad insertion into VODs, it can also go one step further into live simulcasting. With a cue signal provided by the traditional broadcaster, the video fragments containing broadcast TV ads can be replaced with ads specifically targeted to online viewers.

The Ongoing Mission

One of the companies transitioning from a desktop­only video experience to a multidevice approach is -- the first “female” online TV channel in Europe to include transmedia video advertising and brand immersion (brands featured within programmes).

Andi Super, CEO of, explains the significance of mobile and why the company has to upgrade its infrastructure: “Mobile (via smartphones and tablets) is fast becoming 30% of all our traffic globally. Consumer brand partners want to be part of this new revolution, they want to talk to their audience, and mobile is the only real­time channel when you’re on the move.”

Videoplaza’s Tom Hudspith, reelkandi’s ad partner, precisely echoes Super’s numbers. “30% of our traffic is delivered to non-­PC devices such as mobiles and tablets,” he says, “and this has been growing exponentially over the last year.”

And Gaydon at Brightcove doesn’t disagree. “According to research from our partner FreeWheel, in the past year, viewership of ad­supported, rights­managed video content on smartphones increased nearly eight times,” he says, “and tablets have become the go­to mobile devices for viewing episodic video content.”

If what Meek says is true -- that the mobile web is the fastest growing medium that has ever happened -- then it’s vital we online video professionals understand the limitations and the options for monetising online video.

If we don’t, we’re missing making money from at least 30% of our audience. If we do understand but don’t do anything about it, then perhaps as Mr. Spock asks in Star Trek IV, “Are you sure it isn’t time for a colourful metaphor?”

After 2 decades in broadcast and online video, Phil Haggar ( now demystifies technology and gives his clients a clear strategic perspective through his consultancy company

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 Streaming Media Magazine European Edition under the title "Order -- and Revenue -- From Chaos."

Online advertising image via Shutterstock.

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