A while ago (OK, years ago), I wrote an article that was intended to demystify VAST. Things have evolved in those last five years, and it’s probably time to revisit and update this topic to reflect where we are now with VAST.
For those of you just starting out in the industry, if you are not sure what the VAST standard is, or want a deeper understanding of how it works, let’s start again from the beginning. VAST, or Video Ad Serving Template, was developed by the IAB. The VAST files are available on their website. VAST is part of a Digital Video Suite of guidelines and standards intended to make running video ads more interoperable. We will get to why this is important later.
At a high level, VAST is data about your video pre-roll. That data is structured using XML. If you don’t know what XML is, worry not. It’s just a way of defining what each piece of data is, by following a common format. I like to use the analogy that we use VAST XML as a common language for video players and apps to be able to read and understand it.
Since VAST is a standard and looks the same to every video player, the player is able to read it and grab the information it needs. VAST says, “Hey, video player, here’s my ad. Here’s how long it is, and here’s the click and some tracking.” If the player understands VAST, it is able to correctly play the ad.
The VAST standard contains all of this really useful data used to play and correctly track your ad. It contains the following (and more):
● Media files — the location of where your video file is hosted
● Video duration
● Video bitrate and file format
● The dimensions of the video
● Lots of tracking information (including but not limited to):
○ VAST impression and video metrics such as 25% played, 50% played, and the like
○ Click-through info
○ Third-party tracking
● Information about companion ads
As you can see, VAST is pretty robust. However, would it surprise you to learn the VAST tag by itself doesn’t actually do anything? That it does not play the ad or fire the trackers? That’s all on the video player or app itself to make happen.
Unlike a display ad, VAST contains no executable code. It makes no requests on its own. VAST just contains all the info about the ad, and the video player takes care of playing the actual video, determining when to fire trackers, what to do with the click-through, and when to skip the video, of course.
In this way, VAST is really dependent on the player being about to read and understand the data. It needs to perform the correct actions based on that data. In turn, the player is dependent on VAST to always look the same, so that it can correctly read it.
While on the surface this may seem limiting, it’s actually the key to what makes VAST really flexible. VAST provides a platform for making the video requests, and the player (in other words, the publishers) have control of how the ad displays, which can fit seamlessly with how their content displays.
Life Before VAST
At this point, it’s sort of strange to think of a world without VAST. We used to be unable to third-party serve linear (pre-roll) video. It wasn’t even easy to site serve video. Now, thanks to VAST, it’s a very simple process, in some cases even easier than display. This was always the vision and intention of VAST— the promise of a standard truly realized beyond what we even originally envisioned when it was introduced. At the time, we were just excited to have an easier way of trafficking video and about not having to constantly change our player!
What’s Next? The Cross-Screen Opportunity
When I think about all the advantages the VAST standard has brought us, one of the things that has impressed me (second only to making ad ops and developer lives easier) has been the ability to easily third-party serve video. This has allowed the digital video opportunity to really scale and has continued in the world of mobile (cross-screen).
You may have heard of the concept of advertising convergence: the idea of taking one ad or one message and running it on any platform — the concept that media is media no matter where or how you consume it. Well, one place that really rings true is VAST video.
VAST plays such an important part in the cross-screen opportunity for video. Because VAST is technology neutral, we run can video as easily in mobile as we can on desktop. We have even seen this extended to include over the top (OTT) inventory. In fact, we can send one VAST tag, and as long as all the players know what format they need, that same video can run in all those environments.
VAST Is Awesome
Looking back at what I wrote those years ago about the benefits of adopting the standard, it’s exciting to see those things really have been realized. VAST stands as a really powerful example of where a standard has taken an industry sector and really streamlined it to the point that we don’t even really think about it anymore. It just works.