QA in the Videoscape: Keeping Quality in Line with Demand

Quality Assurance Can Help Keep Users Coming Back

As demand among buyers for quality video inventory has risen, so have the channels for transacting on video–programmatic video, video private marketplaces, programmatic TV. At the same time, so have the platforms into which advertisers feel enthusiastic about buying video inventory, with in-demand media bursting into outstream, mobile and other formats. Advertiser demand for video inventory is exploding in all kinds of direction, including outstream and mobile, and publishers are racing to innovate and expand their own offerings.

But while publishers often approach these new possibilities with their eyes on the prize (advertiser dollars), it’s important to keep an eye on what you’re trailing in your path. Poor user experience has an ill effect, and so does weakened security that can leave the door open for bad actors. It’s essential here to consider the quality assurances that are specific to video advertising.

Ad Security and Verification solutions to ensure a clean, safe & engaging user experience.

Sure, increased video consumption has been great for monetization, from the perspective of many publishers. But rapid development often produces a lot of mistakes and oversights, and it certainly has in digital video. Latency, data drain, malware–these are all factors that contribute to bad ad experiences (and worse), and they can bring the revenue train to a crashing halt. The ever-shifting variables involved in quality assurance only get more complicated as video consumption on mobile devices continues to grow. But these issues are not forces of nature, and publishers who are aware of them are exercising a variety of solutions, workarounds and preventative measures to assure quality video.

Tired of Waiting for Video

If we were all okay with waiting and waiting after hitting “play” on a video, we might not have given away our VCRs. Once users experience immediacy, it’s hard for them to turn back. On the open web, if a video doesn’t load quickly, that’s sufficient cause for the user to navigate away and toward something faster post haste. So when the cause of that latency is a third-party ad that won’t load–that load time needs to get sorted out.

The causes for latency are, unfortunately, myriad and diverse. Among publishers we spoke with, many, but not all, of the causes they cited fell under the general umbrella of vendor or player issues. Multiple vendors handling the same execution can be a technical bear, and it can produce pesky discrepancies.

One specific cause of latency cited is the necessity that DSPs and SSPs talk to each other efficiently, and the fact that they don’t always do so. For example, the buy side can sometimes fail to deliver an ad in a timely fashion, or neglect to time itself out if it passes on an impression. These kinds of snafus can come about when an SSP hands off control to a DSP or other buy-side partner, and then the DSP doesn’t hand control back to the SSP. When that happens, it’s not the DSP or the SSP that times out, but the ad server itself, which might take 10 or so seconds.

Other latency culprits might include the player itself, VPAID errors (in which, when VPAID is used as a buy-side decisioning engine, the winner throws its own nested auction and, if there’s no winning bid, returns and empty VAST wrapper), poorly-encoded or even non-encoded videos, issues with vendor content delivery networks, scripts from third-party vendors (verification, viewability, etc.), or ad serving being handled several links in the chain away from the publisher.

Clearly, rooting out and solving for the core latency problem or problems is a chore unto itself. But publishers have found it can be managed and even improved, in spite of how much troubleshooting and how many intermediaries might be involved. Publishers can ask buy- and sell-side vendors to implement their own time-out functions, beyond the ad server’s universal time-out. It’s recommended that ops know how to read VAST, and also check tags in browsers that either take or block cookies.

Publishers should work with buyers and intermediary vendors to troubleshoot, because the core problem in latency might be right under their noses. One publisher told us that after thoroughly checking internally and with DFP, they determined the latency was coming from an online video player, which was adding seconds of rendering time before the ad was served. The number of factors at play calls for a continued dialogue between internal teams on the publisher side and between publisher and vendors.

Other publishers are using vendor tools, like GeoEdge or developing their own verifications, to root out errors and their likely causes. Completion or error rates can reveal possible problems without getting too far in the weeds. And it should go without saying, but publishers ought to vet vendors thoroughly and seek out feedback from other publishers about those vendors’ strengths and weaknesses.

Pouring Good Data Down the Drain

We know mobile video consumption, on smartphones and tablets, has been steadily rising for years–at least, whenever it hasn’t been rapidly rising. Mobile’s share of time spent watching digital video pushed upwards of 40% in 2015, according to eMarketer. And the 18-34 set is leading the way in those mobile habits. So, of course publishers recognize it’s imperative that they monetize their assets on mobile accordingly.

That’s easier said than done. On-screen real estate is limited in mobile. If ad inventory there is to be viewable, it needs to take up a significantly higher percentage of screen space than on desktops. Just to make sure they remain in view, those mobile-specific units are sometimes clunky, unsightly and disruptive. And they can use up so much data, too!

We’ve seen some infamous cases where publishers push pages out onto the web, and the weight of the content is dwarfed by the weight of the advertising attached to it. Users are getting wise to these discrepancies, though–it’s in their best interest, if they’re seeing unexpected data usage notifications and surcharges. If users suspect a specific mobile site or app is sucking up their data, they’ll avoid it if and when possible, especially if they have smaller data plans and are accustomed to keeping an eye on these things. Alternately, they might turn to ad blocking entirely on mobile. Ad blocking is allowed now on iOS9, which makes some publishers anxious about the prospect of a whole rising generation of mobile ad blockers. With mobile traffic continuing to rise–at the expense of desktop traffic–the stakes are meaningful here.

File size and data drain are matters to consider in video, but they should be offset in some regard by HTTP Live Streaming, which allows video to be played back in a variable flow, depending on the data bandwidth of the network connected to the device accessing the video. With HLS, video ads end up normally being on the small side. Publishers, on their own part, should double down by accepting only short video ad spots on mobile–both to preserve data and to respect users’ desire for immediacy on mobile (which some have been saying calls for ads in the single-digit second length).

Aside from HLS, some publishers have pointed to server-side ad insertion (SSAI) as a means for streamlining playback and keeping data drain down. And again, it’s important to have an ongoing dialogue with intermediaries to get a sense of how or whether oversized video ads are making their way to the mobile user.

Somewhere, There Must Be Malware

The good news is, malware is still less of a problem in video advertising than it is in display. The cost of the inventory itself can be prohibitive to bad actors. The VAST wrapper, compared to display, didn’t provide as many opportunities to slip in malignant code. And historically, there’s just been less video inventory for bad actors to mess around with.

The bad news is, malware is starting to become more prevalent in video. Customary video sharing on social media, for example, can complicate and exacerbate a malware attack. In late October, the Tripbox attack made its way through video to 3,000 sites, including several highly ranked on Alexa–the malware served users a fraudulent prompt to download a browser update.

As it stands, some of the old challenges bad actors had infiltrating video are becoming less challenging. Furthermore, users might be more susceptible to malware in video, simply because they’re not accustomed to looking out for it yet. VPAID offers more room than VAST for cracks to be opened up, where malware can come in and data can leak out. The rise of programmatic video could possibly allow for more widespread and efficient distribution of malware, as programmatic had done in display. At the same time, let’s not underestimate publishers’ determination to avoid repeating past mistakes.

To keep these malware and data breaches to a minimum, publishers are well served to limit involvement in indirect ad channels, to have relationships with their advertisers when they can, and to vet vendors carefully for their ability to keep bad actors out. Publishers place a significant amount of trust on programmatic partners, who should be involved in assuring the quality of the creative coming in, to help prevent malware from piggybacking.

Publishers particularly have an eye on VPAID–many have heard stories about how it’s been infiltrated, even if they haven’t experienced it firsthand. VPAID is supposed to put more control in the buyer’s hands, to run additional applications in the player, but at the same time, the publisher ends up yielding security. Publishers acknowledge that VPAID is being misused, and as a result, they’re advised to vet vendors carefully for their security capacities and understand when to say yes or no to working with a potential new partner.

Many of the security issues publishers have with VPAID are addressed in the IAB’s recent VAST 4.0 standard. The updated standard promises verification capabilities on the publisher side. It also addresses some of the issues publishers have with latency, and promises more efficient video load across various devices.

For keeping the security detail up, publishers also cited using a third-party data and malware detection service, like GeoEdge, The Media Trust, DFP’s malware detection tools or a custom verification service.

QA in video takes some amount of extra effort for publishers. But for the most part, publishers have found these challenges to be manageable. More than anything, publishers should have an awareness of where they’ll be able to find the most common quality issues, and what they need to ask partners to prevent those issues before they happen. A poor user experience can lead to declining publisher revenues, but with a little foresight, preparation and prevention, your audience can end up satisfied and none the wiser about what it took to get there.