Today’s post is a guest contribution by J. Allen Dove, CTO of SpotX, a video monetization platform for premium publishers and broadcasters. Allen has been part of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB)'s working group to define the new VAST 4.0 spec and, along with Brightcove’s Jeff Young, will be speaking at the official “release” event for the spec on Thursday at IAB’s TechLab event in San Francisco.
Having served on IAB tech committees since the 1.0 days of the video ad serving template (VAST), VPAID, and other video ad standards, I have witnessed first-hand how important well-defined technical specifications and protocols are for the growth of an industry. All of the online advertising industry’s standards have come a long way since those “wild west” days and have evolved greatly in support of new trends and technologies. Further, participation in defining these standards from companies from all parts of the online advertising ecosystem has grown tremendously, and our industry is all the better for it. VAST 4.0 really represents a concerted effort from all parts of our industry to refine video advertising and to provide a much improved experience for the end consumer.
Teaming up with Brightcove to test-drive the new VAST 4.0 standard provided some valuable insights into a much leaner video ad playback experience. There are some great new features in VAST 4.0 to positively affect the end-consumer experience, predominantly around page load times and prevention of unnecessary bloat in the ad rendering lifetime. There are four features in particular that drive this:
- Identification of "conditional" ads
- Support for mezzanine files (aka server-side stitching)
- Separation of the video asset from interactivity
- Specifically allowing for verification and viewability logic
In today's world, the VPAID container has been co-opted a bit outside of its original intention. Many times in today's world, a Publisher receives a VAST document including a VPAID creative as the "media file". This was intended to be an indicator of an interactive video ad ready to be rendered for an impression opportunity. However, Publishers go through VPAID initialization only to find that the ad container "errors out" far too often. This is because either the container gets executed in the Publisher's player environment and either "looks around" and decided it really is not interested in the impression opportunity after all and just bails on the opportunity, or the VPAID container ends up making 3, 5, 10, or 20 other client-side ad calls to other buy-side resources to see if anyone else has an ad they are interested in playing. Yikes! Both cases provide a Publisher’s players with a latent and unknown ad experience in real-time. In most cases, this process delivers seconds of "black screen" to the end consumer.
VAST 4.0 addresses this issue by adding a new "conditional" flag for an ad that informs the Publisher if a VPAID container may exhibit this behavior. Publishers can now begin to rein in their playback experience to the benefit of the end consumer.
Server-side Stitching and Mezzanine Files
Today, VAST does not explicitly allow for the identification of mezzanine-quality video assets to ensure high-quality server-side ad insertion (SSAI) / stitching. VAST 4.0 solves this by adding a Mezzanine element as an option for a creative. This update provides Publishers with an ability to render a high-quality, continuous video stream to an end consumer and to control the playback of both content and advertising creative. Publishers can now ingest these mezzanine creatives and stream them out in formats specific to their needs and devices. Further, if Publishers apply a pre-fetch model and request ad creative a few seconds or minutes before a desired break, there is no need to “burn” an opportunity waiting for mezzanine transcoding. Note that pre-fetching is specifically informed in the next version of the OpenRTB.
Separation of the Video Asset from Interactivity
Riding right along with SSAI, VAST 4.0 provides an InteractiveCreativeFile node for each ad creative that allows Advertisers to provide interactivity for their ad creative even in a stitched stream. Today, VPAID can fill this need as it stands. It is likely that revisions to VPAID will be made to specifically address this new role down the road, but Advertisers can still provide enhanced experiences to consumers in high-quality stitched streams. It becomes a “best of both worlds” for Publishers to afford their consumers a lean experience and still allow advertisers high visibility into consumer interactions.
Verification and Viewability
Advertisers are constantly looking to ensure their placements are displayed as they intend. To afford this, VAST 4.0 adds an AdVerifications element that allows for placement of controlled containers of code that can be executed for collecting data and verifying ad playback details. Ideally, Publishers execute this logic prior to ad playback if possible so that the verification logic can track the playback as intended. This capability allows a “trust but verify” model and allows Advertisers visibility into each ad placement.
VAST 4.0 represents a great evolution in the advertising ecosystem. Publishers gain more control of their playback experiences and advertisers are still afforded the creativity and verification they require. At the end of the day, however, it is the end consumer that wins. Leaner ad playback is always a great thing.