Introduction to VAST

There has been a lot of talk about VAST and how important adopting this standard is. Recently I had a conversation with someone in which I mentioned VAST – a subject that is obviously near and dear to me. He said to me, “You know Sarah, there are a lot of people who really don’t understand what VAST even is.”

He’s got a point. If operations teams don’t understand what the VAST is, how are they going to explain it to their sales and tech teams? Last year I gave a presentation at the Publisher Forum XX in New Orleans entitled: Tapping Into the Promise of Video. I mentioned the term “VAST” and I got a few feverish nods but also a few blank looks.

I don’t think I need to go on about how important the VAST standard is going to be for video ad serving. I think there’s been plenty written about that topic . But I would like to help demystify it a little bit. Guess what – you don’t need to be a programmer to understand VAST!

Let’s get down to basics

VAST stands for Video Ad Serving Template. The VAST standard was developed by the IAB and you can access the files on their site.

The IAB’s description of VAST is it’s “a standard XML-based ad response for in-stream video as well as an XML Schema Definition (“XSD”) for developers (IAB VAST-2_0-FINAL.pdf).”

But don’t worry about understanding what XML and XSD are. Let your developers worry about that. Think about it like a language that your video player speaks – like English or Spanish. Basically what we are doing is we are teaching the ad servers, third party providers and video players how to speak the same language. That’s going to take some integration work up front of course for those of you who have custom players. A lot of third party video player technologies, such as Brightcove and thePlatform, have already adopted the VAST standard – or at least some form of it.

VAST is simply information you are giving to your video player about your ad. It’s telling your video player – here’s my ad, here’s where you can find it on my server, here’s how long to run it, this is the click through url and oh by the way – here’s the path to the pixel I need to fire off for tracking.

Once most video players adopt the VAST “language” operations will be able to just drop the ad into the ad server. Your video player will be able to read and display the ad properly because it understands the “VAST” language.

It doesn’t matter if I serve my video ads from DFP or LiveRail or xyzadserver. As long as my video player understands how to read VAST it will be able to display the ad.

Also – and this is the cool, important part – if I want to run third party video player ads – either from an ad network or a rich media provider – I can now do that because they are going to give me an ad in VAST which my video player will be able to understand and display. Imagine being able to run an internal redirect video ad from DFA. It’s going to be possible!

And in theory I won’t have to retool my video player every time I want to run a video ad from a different provider. This will hopefully be good news for publishers who have custom players which, by the way, was about half of the people who attended my presentation.

Benefits for Ops

What’s the benefit for operations? The best way I have heard it described is it’s like a third party javascript ad tag except it’s specifically for video.

Let’s count the ways:

1) You will be able to plug this ad into your adserver and it will just work. I have to caveat this of course. It will work provided that you and your providers are following the baseline format of the VAST standard. If there are deviations on the standard then there might be problems.

2) You won’t have to take a ton of time scheduling your video ads into a goofy format known only to your video player or be an Adobe Certified Flash programmer to schedule it.

3) You won’t have to spend time training new hires how to book custom ads.

4) It will streamline your processes in operations by not only simplifying your own ad delivery, but it will allow you to serve ads from other providers without overhauling your video player.

5) Your video player developers will thank you because they will now have this format that is easy for them to work with. They won’t have to spend precious development cycles customizing the player for each and every new ad network or third party that you want to run. (Instead they will be creating new and exciting custom ad formats –  but that’s a blog post for another time).

At this point you might be asking – “OK that sounds good – but how does it simplify the process exactly?”

I think I can best explain this with an example. For those of you using DoubleClick Instream or a video adserver such as Freewheel your booking process is probably filling out a form. For those of you who are not using those products, I’m willing to bet the process for booking video is a bit more complex. What VAST will allow you to do is to easily create – as an example – a custom template in DFP or DE that will make the booking as easy as filling out a form.

Linear vs Non-linear

Now I should make an important point here that we are mainly talking about linear video ads (such as 30 second spots) as opposed to non-linear video ads (such as overlays). Although VAST does support the serving of both linear and non-linear ads it won’t conquer all your technological challenges in serving non-linear (i.e. rich media) ads into your video player.

Just like with expandable ads on webpages, non-linear video ads are complex and tricky which is part of what makes them so great. They are not images and video files – they are like little mini-applications running inside your big video player application.

However, VAST is not meant to tell the video player how to handle those types of ads. Rather it simply tells the player the ad is there to display, here is the link to it and this is how long it should play for. It doesn’t give any information about special interactivity it doesn’t know about – like what to do when you expand an overlay over video or when someone clicks to interact with a game inside a takeover. Video players will still have to have custom programming to handle those special ads – just like a web page does for rich media.

Good news is there are also standard for that called VPAID which let’s those kinds of ads talk to your player… but again – blog post for another time.

One last thing – VAST 2.0 vs. VAST 1.0

In November of 2009, the IAB released an update to VAST. It’s referred to as VAST 2.0 and is the most current standard at the time of this post. Unfortunately, VAST 2.0 is not backwards compatible with VAST 1.x. The IAB had to make some changes that they considered critical enough to warrant a new version. What that means is:

 – If you are using VAST 1.x (any version prior to November’s update) you should move to VAST 2.0.

 – If you aren’t using VAST at all go straight to VAST 2.0.

The IAB is not planning on constantly updating the VAST standard. Not to say that this is a one time thing but hopefully it will be less frequent than say Flash Player updates. However, it would be smart to plan ahead with your developers in case there needs to be support for more than one version of VAST in the future.

Hopefully this has helped your understanding of what VAST is. If you still feel like you don’t understand it I’m happy to answer any questions so please reach out! Also get in touch with other AdMonsters and IAB Digital Video Committee members to find out how they are implementing VAST. That’s what I did. Also, be sure to check out all the information the IAB has provided on their site. My best recommendation is to get that stuff to your tech teams and get their help in understanding and adopting VAST and VPAID.