SSAI Works For Now, But It Will Limit The Long-Term Future Of Personalized Video

"On TV And Video" is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video. 

Today’s column is written by Brian Pozesky, strategy, video and retail at Flashtalking. 

In recent years, server-side ad insertion (SSAI) has seen a tremendous surge in adoption as a means of stitching video ads into content. The seamless ad loading process reduces video buffering, recovers inventory and greatly improves the user experience.

Unfortunately, there are also negative side effects: In limiting the real-time exchange of information between publishers and advertisers, SSAI inherently limits the dynamic capabilities of video advertising.

That’s because the process requires publishers to take extra steps so they can pass ad servers signals such as client IP address and device information that advertisers can use to optimize and personalize creative. While not particularly complex, most publishers – especially small ones – never take that extra step. As a result, SSAI effectively makes video a static medium resistant to creative optimization and personalization.

A necessary, albeit Imperfect, intervention

As ad technology evolves, the challenge has been to balance its promise with the need to preserve and improve the user experience.

A big part of that is speed, an especially large challenge in video. By combining video and advertising assets in a single stream, SSAI reduces buffering and eliminates scenarios where ads load but video content does not.

Brands benefit from seamlessly delivered messages, and consumers benefit from a smoother experience. Publishers, too, benefit since delivering one stream of video is much easier than requiring a mechanism to stop a stream, play an ad and start the stream again.

Thanks to these benefits, SSAI has to date had a positive effect on the adoption of digital video as a medium.

The clock is winding down on SSAI benefits

The major challenges posed by SSAI involve targeting and measurement. Thanks to the same processes that streamline the delivery of ad content within video, many publishers implement SSAI in such a way that prohibits them from passing data back to advertisers at the time of an impression.

Problems occur when the media is purchased through a DSP, which tend to serve to an unlimited number of publishers that might or might not have configured the SSAI service correctly. If the personalized video campaign is running through a DSP, the ad server will see a significant number of requests coming from a single data center IP address or missing user device information signifying that the SSAI service was not implemented correctly.

Overcoming this challenge requires publishers to configure their SSAI solution to deliver critical information, such as device type and IP address, through request headers so that ad servers can deliver customized creative. Routine SSAI implementations will insert ads into video content without request headers or any other feedback mechanism, hindering further measurement and device-level targeting.

Getting it right requires publishers to work with their SSAI providers to adhere to the IAB’s VAST 4.2 guidance, which outlines specific steps to ensure that client IP address and device info is passed to the ad server when the ad is requested, and in such a way that doesn’t appear fraudulent. Essentially, the SSAI provider will introduce two HTTP headers: X-Device-IP and X-Device-User-Agent, and ensure that the information included in these headers matches the information in the original ad request payload.

These steps are not tremendously hard to implement on their own, but they do require extra work and proactive action. And the real impact of this opt-in framework is that very few publishers have done the extra work to opt in.

Most large video-centric publishers have taken these extra steps to follow VAST 4.2 so they can capture the data they need to better target and measure ads delivered via SSAI. But most other publishers, especially smaller pubs on the open web, lack the resources and incentive to make this a priority. Until they do, real-time targeting, customization and optimization are only possible if the impressions occur within these select publisher environments. SSAI has made video a more static medium at a time when the industry is striving to make creative more interactive and personalized.

In order for digital video to mature into a full-funnel medium, data-driven creative will prove critical, as it allows advertisers to personalize messages to customers’ path to purchase. But dynamic creative and video require two-way communication that most of today’s SSAI implementations simply don’t permit.

If marketers are going to continue to properly orient digital video in their media mixes and execute effectively, they’re going to require the two-way street that enables dynamic creative and analytics. That means “business as usual” with SSAI will have to change.

Follow Flashtalking (@flashtalking) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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