If A Video Ad Plays And No One Hears It, Does It Make An Impression?

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video hearability copyMissing in the Media Ratings Council’s (MRC) definition of in-browser video viewability (50% in view, playing for two consecutive seconds) is any stipulation around audibility.

This isn’t an oversight – the MRC chose not to institute an audibility requirement because the technology doesn’t exist to determine muting in all instances, said David Gunzerath, SVP and associate director of the MRC.

“While the ability to detect player muting is commonplace, we haven't yet seen anyone who has the ability to detect muting on the device itself,” he explained. “Until there's the ability to detect muting in any way in which it can occur, we didn't believe it should be a requirement of the guidelines.”

The problem with detecting muting on a device is less technical and more ethical. To do so would require installing code – not something consumers would likely appreciate and, even if they did, the permissions process would be unwieldy. As such, measurement tools can only tell if the ad ran on a muted video player.

The MRC "should at least try to make sure the player isn’t muted,” argued Mark Kalus, associate VP of product management at ad tech company Sizmek. “But that’s a partial solution.”

Even overlooking the problem around device volume setting, there remain significant hurdles around assessing audibility at the software level. Matt Augliera, SVP of media and accounts at Telemetry (which, along with Moat and Videology, is one of the three vendors accredited by the MRC to measure video viewability), homed in on three layers in which detecting a video’s audibility can be messed up or – more nefariously – fooled by a fraudulent signal.

The first layer, he said, is around the video file itself.

“Every video file is encoded with a decibel level setting,” he explained. “This determines the maximum volume of a video regardless of the other two layers.”

The second layer focuses on the volume at which the player tells the creative to play. The third layer is the volume at which the video player plays the content.

These instructions can contradict each other, undermining audio measurements.

“If you tell the creative to play its volume level at 100%, but you tell the player to play at volume level at zero, then your volume is zero,” Augliera said. He offered a more material analogy: an iPod set to max volume and plugged into an amplifier where the volume is switched off won’t emit any sound at all.

Jonah Goodhart, CEO and co-founder of Moat, pointed out that while layer one is typically dealt with in the QA process, assessing “layer two and three is the standard approach to measuring muted versus unmuted, and is what (Moat) checks for as part of our audible check while the ad is running.”

Of course, the MRC’s definition doesn’t consider these elements when assessing audibility in video ads, since it doesn’t assess audibility at all. When the MRC lifted its advisory against purchasing video ads on the basis of views, it did so with the expectation that its viewability definition was only a baseline off which the ad industry could build a more mature and thorough standard. As such, the complexities around the quality of an in-browser video ad’s audibility is one marketers, publishers and vendors still need to work out.

“Audibility likely will not be incorporated in Active View's definition of a viewable video ad impression (nor required by the MRC's viewable definition) at launch,” said David Lowsky, a Google product manager. “But we are exploring ways that it may be incorporated in the future.”

Google’s video viewability tools are informed by the MRC’s standard, Lowsky said. Google’s Active View metric accounts for whether the video played on an active browser tab or not (i.e., the tab in which the user was engaging).

But while video ad measurements have mostly focused on visibility – largely due to the preponderance of display units – advertisers are increasingly cognizant of audibility for their video buys.

“I would want to know both: heard and seen,” said Nileem Jani, director of advertising strategy, product and brand at Verizon Wireless.

The reality is that, for fear of alienating consumers, not all video ads shown will be heard. For instance, when Facebook introduced autoplaying video ads last year, it kept them muted. For consumers and publishers, this is a good thing. For advertisers? Less so.

“Nonaudible impressions aren't as bad as impressions no one sees, but they're worth far less than what the advertiser is paying for,” said Ryan Pamplin, co-founder of BrandAds, a fraud-detection and measurement platform acquired by Extreme Reach in May. “We measure the volume on every video ad, and when an ad is muted, we consider it non-viewable. We're able to generate reports that help our clients and their vendors block domains serving muted video impressions.”

Moat has a proprietary metric called Audibility and Viewability On Completion (AVOC) used by clients like Kellogg’s that, as its name suggests, incorporates audio quality. “It is a strong signal that the person was there for the length of the video ad beyond the (MRC’s) two-second minimum and that they had the chance to hear and see it,” Goodhart said.

It’s ultimately up to the advertisers to determine what metrics are most important. Is audibility a must-have? And if it is and a video ad cranks up in a muted player, what steps should one take next?

B. Bonin Bough, VP of global media and consumer engagement at Mondelēz International – which made waves when it revealed a direct relationship with video demand-side platform (DSP) TubeMogul – knows that some video media will inevitably begin playing with audio off. Consequently, he said he believes the impetus is on the brand to create content that can either be engaging when muted or inspire the consumer to turn up the sound. And the strategy for accomplishing this will differ from platform to platform.

“I think the question here is how do we think creatively about our content and create work that is native to the platform,” Bough said. “If we are to expect auto-play to increasingly become a feature of the platform, how can we better communicate a story or brand message in muted media? What would drive consumers to unmute that content?”

Bough described how Mondelēz used a Facebook feature to build video preview slides and target them to the relevant audience. Targeting preview content, Bough said, can drive video views and engagement.

Not everyone believes the audio question is the most pressing at the moment.

“For what it's worth, I think there are a lot of (very measurable) things an advertiser could optimize against in video … before having to fully solve the audio challenge,” Moat’s Goodhart said. In-banner vs. large player, for example, or auto-play vs. not.

And while Google is only “exploring” ways to incorporate audibility, Lowsky said in future product releases, “we plan to support richer metrics, like overall ad time that was viewable.”

As rich as these metrics might be however, one still shouldn’t overlook the fact that a video playing on mute is still only a partial experience.

Update 7/8: Scott Martino, marketing analytics lead at Mercedes-Benz USA said the importance of audibility depends on the context in which the video ad plays:

"Essentially does audio contribute to viewability?

"I can’t help but be swayed by the context of that ad. So how many computers are muted anyway, regardless of whether the player is. But in more premium placements like FEPs (full episode player), odds are they are not muted. So in the former situation would audio actually help people focus on the ad?

"In the end, I think [a muted video] is still a viewable impression, BUT I would like to know how many of those impressions were served without sound as a result of the player being muted (as we are not able to know if the user's computer was muted)."

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