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Video Ad Serving Solved in a Flash

Video Ad Serving Solved in a Flash Eric Porres

It would be hard to argue that internet video isn't here, or that consumers aren't used to it. A recent eMarketer report estimates that just about 87 percent of all broadband users have watched online video of some kind. And with today's big pipes, strong processors and improved software, video is a seemingly essential part of the broadband experience that's a far cry from the jagged postage stamp-sized experiences of the '90s.

But with this rise in the ability for the internet population to view video, and the influx of venture capital into the marketplace to fund just about any idea with the word 'video' in the business plan, there are some issues surrounding online video that are still works-in-progress that must be ironed out before planning internet video advertising becomes less of a clown show and more a work suitable for Masterpiece Theater. These issues include:

Cost of talent
Unlike the UGV (that's user-generated-video) revolution, most advertisers still want to produce video for television. Be it a 30-second commercial for TV with outtakes on the web or any derivative web byproduct, they need to secure the rights for that talent to be authorized for play/replay on the web. In addition, one has to sort out the talent costs (what the actor 'takes' for every play, potential play, half play of an ad) and production costs (editing for web, encoding for web, et cetera), and those costs are still in a hazy sphere of negotiation at the time of creation. 

Then, when it comes time to plan to buy internet video, what do we buy? Many of my video conversations with publishers and fellow colleagues have centered around the age-old currency of impressions. After all, with the web, it's not just about the opportunity to see (like TV); with online, if my 15-second masterpiece plays from start to finish then that computer gets dinged for a full impression-worth of video. However, maybe that video only played half the way through. Some would argue that that impression shouldn't count since it wasn't fully realized and the concomitant premium placed on video ads necessitates that all video under 15 to 30 seconds in length be fully played in order to get paid. But isn't that like a Flash ad that plays through five seconds of animation but never gets to the end, but since it loads in the browser window it counts as an impression? And what if a publisher can't tell me if that video was fully played?

Pricing and availability
Next, regarding pricing, let's face it: When it comes down to bits and bytes, the actual cost of serving a video asset is a fraction more expensive from a bits-to-throughput perspective (and that fraction grows smaller with each passing day as storage and bandwidth costs come down).

Of course, overpricing is nothing new. When we jumped from 'standard' GIF/JPEG ads to Flash, prices leaped along with initial awareness/response metrics, only to see both gradually fall back to earth. Remember the time when 728x90s were rocking the house for performance?

Regardless, publishers who overprice their inventory run the real risk of losing out entirely. Right now, the word on the street is that in general, when buying video, supply exceeds demand by a good margin and most of the inventory, from pre-roll to in-banner, is overpriced for the value it returns.

Site-side specifications for video are still-- messy. Despite the best efforts of the IAB, every site seemingly wants to have its video its own way. There are QuickTime videos, Real videos, Windows Media Player videos, videos that serve in-banner, et cetera. There are sites that accept pre-roll, and others that strenuously object to it, not to mention the challenge of tagging a pre-roll video asset that is then served by a site and relying on site-side numbers for auditing and billing purposes. Each ad server has its own flavor of video spec uniformity, and although it would be great to send off my ad for encoding in 100 different ways, it shouldn't be so darned complicated to do so and then have it distributed.

The Google/YouTube solution
For a while now, I've been scratching my head (along with others) about the YouTube acquisition and what Google got for it. Maybe Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible means that they have cracked the taxonomy code such that all those Tubers will eventually go rank and file into a social tagging hierarchy to ensure that all 'funny kicks to the groin' videos are categorized by anatomy, action and humor value and that creates enough audience for Axe to plug in a video ad… but that is a topic for another conversation.

There's also something rather sublime about how YouTube has changed the way we watch video assets in general (ads, kicks to groin, et cetera) that bears some examination by any publisher that wants to capitalize on the ability to sell video ads. You see, the nifty thing about YouTube (and now others) is that it can take virtually any standard video asset and convert it into a Flash asset that just about anyone on the planet can then view. As such, what if publishers could align themselves with the notion of using Flash as the primary video format for ads? With that deft move, the specification issues I referred to earlier virtually disappear.

The Macromedia folks who developed Flash have produced (and continue to refine) the MTK (Multi-Tracking Kit), which enables agencies to do things with Flash ads like track interaction rates, number of times an expandable ad is opened or closed in an expandable banner, et cetera. More importantly, just about every agency on the planet now that touches digital in some way uses Flash on a daily basis to produce websites, banners, videos and so on. And if the publishers could buttonhole a Flash developer and have them explain better than I about how you can merge different Flash assets together, suddenly you'd find for example that pre-roll Flash ads could be tracked (not that I'm advocating the use of pre-roll... for example only!) and tracked in a way that agencies are already used to with Flash ads.

In conclusion, the greatest potential video inventory is worthless if we can't streamline the way to get there. The trend towards online video advertising will continue if and only if it can be bought in a way that makes sense and can easily be executed. Otherwise, we'll still have plenty of other ways to entertain and immerse ourselves online.

Eric L. Porres is COO and a partner in Underscore Marketing LLC. .

Eric Porres provides oversight for marketing operations and heads up Rocket Fuel's research center of excellence for digital consumer insight. Prior to joining Rocket Fuel, Porres co-founded Underscore Marketing, a full-service digital marketing...

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