How CNN Prepped For Flashpocalypse

When the Flashpocalypse comes in July, CNN aims to offer advertisers space in its fallout shelter. The video-heavy publisher moved early to transition its video platform from Flash to HTML5 during Q1 of this year.

CNN averages over 464 million video starts a month, so it knew it needed to get in front of the tricky technical transition. In December 2016, the IAB called for all video ads to switch from Flash to HTML5 by July. Google stopped accepting Flash creative in April, and it plans to stop serving Flash ads next month, in keeping with the IAB’s deadline. Chrome browsers stopped displaying Flash content in Q3 last year.

“Flash was at the heart of everything we did and had a way of showing up in virtually every one of our platforms,” said Alex Wellen, chief product officer at CNN. “Google was closing in by eliminating, tamping down or throttling Flash.”

But switching over to HTML5 posed challenges. CNN needed to make sure that all of its advertisers submitted their video ads in the right format, since Flash ads can’t run in an HTML5 player.

Plus, at every step along the way from agency to publisher, an ad tech partner might do something that messed up the HTML5 ad creative. CNN needed to communicate proactively about the switch to make sure its agency and ad tech partners were prepared to support HTML5.

During Q1 – but after the presidential inauguration news spike in January – CNN pulled the trigger to switch from Adobe Flash to HTML5. The ratio of ads loading to content loading dropped immediately.

“We had a bumpy couple of weeks,” said Nick Johnson, SVP of digital ad sales strategy for Turner.

CNN assembled a team composed of employees from ad ops, tech, product and ad sales, to investigate all the ad creatives that weren’t loading properly.

“Our team had to spend a lot of time analyzing handshakes that we thought weren’t happening,” Johnson said. “We found out a bunch of isolated issues that on the surface appeared unrelated, but were all tied to rolling it over.”

Often, the problem was related to one of the ad tech partners between the advertiser and publisher. CNN capitalized on its close relationships with ad tech partners, such as Freewheel and Rubicon, to troubleshoot. They knew about the switch beforehand, and CNN relied on them to quickly pick up the phone to tackle problems with HTML5 creatives.

Advertisers were also notified about the transition. Direct advertisers were the easiest to communicate with, since they directly submit creative to the publisher. Private programmatic deals meant tracking down planners and instructing them to swap out creative.

For the open programmatic exchange, CNN had no control over how advertisers submitted ads. “Fortunately, we work with big partners, and Google’s taking care of that communication,” Johnson said. Google’s DSP, DoubleClick Bid Manager, stopped accepting Flash ads in April, shortly after CNN made its switch.

The switch did impact the publisher’s revenue, though CNN declined to say how much. “We were surprised by how much was affected,” Johnson said.

Anticipating a revenue hit, CNN chose to do the transition during the first quarter, when advertiser demand ebbs. Publishers that wait until July to make the switch could see a greater decrease in revenue, Johnson predicted.

CNN’s viewers will notice a difference with the switch to HTML5. Pages load significantly faster with CNN’s lighter tech. Desktop load time went from 9 seconds to 3 seconds, while mobile web video previously took as long as 12 seconds to load but went down to 6 seconds with the new player.

The faster load times reduce viewer abandonment, which benefits CNN, its advertisers and views. “The time to first frame is crucial,” Wellen said. HTML5 not only loads faster; it’s more flexible, allowing CNN to adapt its player more easily in the future.

Come July, CNN expects to reap benefits from its early transition to HTML5. “To the extent that there is a contraction in inventory in the market, we are well positioned to take that,” Johnson said.

Now that CNN has transitioned to HTML5, it’s helping other parts of Turner with the transition and will aid its advertisers in troubleshooting issues.

Procrastinating publishers should expect technical issues come July, Wellen warned. “They still have a lot of trial and error to go through. Every single publisher will need to work through every various corner case.”

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