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Instream Or Out? Why It’s So Hard To Accurately Label Video Inventory


Step aside, made-for-advertising sites. There’s another media quality controversy flaring up in the world of online video.

Buy-side pressure is building over how publishers categorize their video inventory.

The Trade Desk kicked off a reckoning when it removed support for Yahoo video inventory it claims the publisher mislabeled as instream.

Now the industry is questioning just how much mislabeled video inventory is circulating in open auctions.

Instream video, loosely defined, is video the user expects to watch when they arrive on the page and that plays with the sound on. Outstream is anything that doesn’t fit the requirements for instream, such as floating video players with muted auto-play content.

“Outstream video is just a moving banner ad, and it has become this terrible experience that annoys consumers,” said Scott Konopasek, a media consultant at Pant Rhei Consulting.

Instream scarcity

Unfortunately, there’s more outstream video inventory in open auction than there is instream, which is leading to labeling shenanigans.

For example, one common signifier for instream video is that the sound plays by default. But buy-side sources who spoke with AdExchanger said as little as 5% of open-auction video inventory is non-muted. The most generous estimate pegged non-muted video at 15%.

This scarce instream inventory is often packaged by publishers and SSPs with less desirable outstream placements, such as muted floating video players. This packaging drives up pricing for outstream video and may also depress prices for instream, harming both advertisers seeking premium placements and publishers that sell the good stuff.

Numerous industry experts told AdExchanger that most publishers and SSPs aren’t incentivized to accurately label their inventory. But they’re optimistic that increased pressure from major buy-side players like The Trade Desk will correct the skewed pricing dynamics that result from outstream being sold as instream.


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Why instream video matters

Marketers want instream video because it’s the closest that online video can get to replicating the TV ad experience. According to the IAB Tech Lab’s video standards, instream video playback must be initiated by the user, the sound must be on by default, and the user must arrive on the page expecting to see video content.

An instream media environment is far more conducive to capturing an audience’s undivided attention than outstream, said Dave Morgan, founder and executive chairman of TV ad platform Simulmedia.

When marketers think of instream, they think of YouTube. When they think of outstream, it conjures images of muted floating video players that annoyingly follow users as they scroll down the page.

“When I’m buying video, I want people to be able to hear the audio,” Konopasek said, “and I don’t want it to be banished to some small corner of the page.”

Selling, buying (and labeling) video inventory

The problem is it’s up to publishers and SSPs to label the video inventory they sell by filling in fields in OpenRTB bid requests.

And although it’s been more than a year since the IAB Tech Lab published new guidelines for what types of content can be labeled as instream, some publishers aren’t adhering to them. They continue to mislabel outstream placements as instream because the latter typically attracts CPMs in the range of $15 and up, whereas outstream attracts CPMs in the single digits.

In April, the Media Rating Council began advising measurement vendors to consider intentional mislabeling of outstream inventory to be invalid traffic.

With these guidelines, buyers now have grounds to request a refund for such placements, said Erez Levin, principal of Emet Advisory who spent 13 years at Google.

Meanwhile, SSPs include outstream alongside instream impressions because it helps agencies hit their vanity metrics for video buys, such as video completion rate or viewability. And buyers see better ROAS when cheaper impressions are mixed in, which helps SSPs retain business.

And so many publishers and SSPs will continue charging higher prices for mislabeled inventory for as long as they can get away with it.

Meanwhile, many web publishers that sell instream video also sell outstream video, making it unlikely they would proactively take steps to lower the value of their outstream inventory to benefit their smaller supply of instream.

Plus, buyers typically can’t tell what they’re actually bidding on until after they buy it.

Log-level data can reveal many proxy signals for whether a video is instream, such as whether the sound was on, the size of the video player and its position on the page or what device the video was being watched on, said Rocky Moss, co-founder and CEO of DeepSee.io. But buyers typically don’t see such reporting pre-bid.

DSPs, including The Trade Desk, offer the ability to bid on impressions only when video plays with the sound on, when the player is a certain size or the impression is served on a certain device, Moss said. But, he noted, this won’t help buyers determine whether the video content matches what a user came to the page for, which is another requirement for instream placements.

It’s possible ad verification vendors like IAS and DoubleVerify could do more to vet whether video inventory is being labeled accurately before a bid is made, Moss said.

But the mislabeling problem isn’t solely up to verification tech to solve, he added. The problem persists because of sell-side incentives to make more money and because advertisers prioritize vanity metrics that are easily gamed by video platforms.

Direct and curated deals

And so, Morgan said, “the best way to make sure that you don’t get garbage is to do direct deals.”

After all, part of the reason so little instream inventory is available in open auction is because it gets sold directly, or when it comes to CTV, during upfronts.

“Whether those are PMPs or PG deals, the industry is increasingly going to insertion order deals that use programmatic pipes to deliver,” Morgan said. “The Trade Desk is talking about an always-on upfront akin to a futures market, and I think that’s where we’re heading.”

DSPs could also get more involved in packaging curated pools of trusted publishers whose inventory meets instream requirements, and there are already efforts underway to do so.

For example, DeepSee recently worked with a client using sound-on as a proxy for buying instream video, and it tested buying the same publisher domains through both The Trade Desk’s SP500+ offering and open programmatic.

“The audio-on rate was much [higher] for the Top 500 slice, probably because it’s ad-unit-level targeting,” Moss said. “Ad-unit targeting is key, because even on the same site, in the same section, you may find that certain articles are instream and certain articles are not.”

And as the Yahoo incident demonstrates, The Trade Desk isn’t shy about naming names for who’s not living up to media quality standards, said Levin. Its “message to big publishers and SSPs will be, ‘Clean this up and take the revenue hit, or we’ll make sure you take a revenue hit and a reputational hit.’”

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