Splashing Around in Outstream: New Video Opportunities for Publishers

There's a Method to This Video Madness

The boom town in digital is being built in a video player, and the dilemma created by the boom is now a pretty famous one: There’s more demand from advertisers for premium video inventory than most publishers can reasonably accommodate.

That’s where outstream video comes in. The promise of outstream is that its units can be placed just about anywhere on the page, and if you’re a publisher that doesn’t even host video content, you can still get in on the action. Just load up some outstream units in between paragraphs of text, for example, and you’re good to go, ready to make video-hungry advertisers happy and to cash in on those plum video CPMs.

Just one thing, though: Doesn’t something about outstream sound… familiar? Wasn’t there a time when the web was pockmarked with randomly placed video ads that loaded up and started playing at times when the user had no reason to expect to see a video player? And didn’t users hate that?

Yet here we are, talking about “outstream” as if it’s new and generally awesome for everyone. And in certain ways, outstream as we know it today it is kind of new. But it’s easy to imagine how it might hypothetically lead to a backslide to the old digital landscape of the early ’00s.

Surely there are ways to do outstream right, to grab those digital video dollars and keep users happy. I called up Allen Klosowsky, SpotX’s VP, Mobile and Connected Devices, to straighten out the issue. Fortunately, he had a lot to say about it.

SpotX is a video inventory management platform for premium publishers and broadcasters, helping them manage all of their demand sources from one place, and monetize content across all screens.

BRIAN LaRUE: Auto-play, outstream video units have been around for ages. Users have often complained about those being intrusive and unwelcome.  I’m curious how your approach is different, from a user experience perspective.

Out-stream can mean many things. It can mean even that it’s running as an in-banner unit. That’s not our approach with the SpotX In-Content Unit, which has been designed to enable video advertising in content. So that could be in the article text, a slideshow or other content that someone is actively consuming.

There’s a reorganization right now with publishers working with advertisers to focus on metrics like viewability. There’s obviously value to having advertisements throughout the page, but there’s pushback by users if there are too many. The idea is to make the content front and center and place very premium advertising positions inside that content, in a way that doesn’t disrupt the user flow or prompt users to rely on ad blockers to protect the user experience.  We can enable one really well-placed video ad and remove a few of the display advertisements that lead to a cluttered look and additional page load time.  In return publishers can often make more money with that video ad than they can with five low-value display ads in the right rail.

BL: I’m curious what challenges you’ve seen publishers face when they start hosting outstream with no prior video experience. Does it call for a different way of thinking?

AK: My background is on the publisher side, so I know monetization can be very complicated. For SpotX, solving publisher’s technical challenges is the easy part. The hardest part is helping publishers understand video advertisers are looking for things like completed view rates. A lot of display ad inventory is never seen, but advertisers are billed when the ad loads.  Whereas in video, the advertiser gets billed when the video starts playing — when it becomes seen. So for many publishers that don’t come from a video background, that’s a tough mindset shift.

BL: Are you seeing any best practices about how and where to place those units, for the publisher’s benefit?

AK: One important step is helping publishers understand where on their pages dwell time is occurring, and then working to build good advertising experiences in those pockets. Think of it like a tennis racket or golf club — typically there’s a sweet spot. And if you hit the sweet spot, that’s where you get the most power. On publisher websites, there’s a sweet spot where readers spend the most of their time. That sweet spot is different between an article page and a home page, and it could be different between a travel page, a health page, a gaming site, a photo gallery and so on.

People spend a tremendous amount of time around the comments section. So if you’ve got a video ad that is sitting above the comments box, there’s a lot of value there.

The other thing is looking at things like 16×9 video placements versus 4×3 video placements. It’s a subtle thing, but the idea of doing a wide-screen means it stays in view longer when the user is scrolling around.

BL: How do publishers maintain quality control with these units, and behave in a way their audiences are okay with?

AK: There was a lot of stuff going on in the early days of the web when some were using ads almost to override the settings of the players. The players have evolved. Our player doesn’t allow any of that. So if the publisher says, “This is a muted placement,” it’s a muted placement.

Biologically, if you’re sitting in a room and you see movement, your eyes immediately go there. We’re programmed to react to video advertisements. But many advertisers have thought they’re only effective with sound. And what we’re seeing now is a lot of really good advertisers — Ben and Jerry’s is an example — who have thought about it: This is going to be in the content, but it’s going to be muted. And they do things like showcase the product, they use text overlays, so even if there’s no sound, the message is getting across.

For pre-roll in front of a long-form video, a 30-second ad might make sense. The user’s willing to go through that process. If it’s an In-Content Unit on a desktop, I really think it should be 15 seconds. I’m hoping that the mobile industry moves to five- to seven-second ads, because in my opinion that’s the sweet spot for mobile video ads. It’s important for the publisher and advertiser to work together to talk about the experience that the user is going to have.

BL: How does mobile change the number or the frequency of ad units the user sees in one article, or any of the other factors that might be involved?

AK: What you find in mobile is, people don’t like to click around so much from article to article. This endless scroll environment almost throws frequency out of the window. How often does the user see the ad? That really depends on things like scroll velocity. If you get into Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram, what you’ll find is that users are scrolling so quickly, they’re barely even seeing the content, let alone the advertising. Pay attention to your own scroll velocity on these different mobile experiences. We’re talking smartphones—as tablets are more akin to desktop.

If you’re engaging with something like a newspaper publisher, a magazine publisher, a broadcaster, this kind of content, the scroll velocity is much, much lower, because people are actually looking at the content, and the ads as well.

BL: When outstream becomes commonplace, will these video ads retain their value, or will the commonality drive CPMs down again?

AK: The idea of just adding another ad unit to the page to solve a monetization gap doesn’t really make sense moving forward. I think what we’ll see is probably a consolidation, where lots of the distracting banner ad positions are going to be reduced, because users are already starting to push back on that. If you want to figure out how to deliver the most value to the advertiser and the most seamless experience to the user and still build a monetization strategy that works, you need to replace that cheap banner advertising with something with much higher CPM, which is the video ad. I think when people’s article pages go from 15 ads on the page to two or three highly viewable ads on the page, you’ll see the budgets shift accordingly.

It does open up more video inventory, but more opportunity to spend at scale leads to more advertisers spending. Publishers that create experiences that are front and center, that talk to their agencies, communicate the value, and place it in a sweet spot – those publishers are going to see their overall CPMs increase.