A Stitch in Time: How Stream Stitching Beats the Ad Blockers

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Smith notes that “massive media brands need these solutions to scale without limitations” so if an event drives large-scale over-the-top (OTT) audiences, “programmers and publishers need the scale and elasticity of the cloud to be able to deliver highly targeted (per user) ad payload at scale.”

Smith says Anvato has tested this “at scale with millions of requests per minute,” in order to meet the needs of these customers.

Online video platforms (OVPs) tend to deal with ad blockers with a very straightforward approach, which has nonetheless proven very effective.

“Ad blockers maintain a list of rules (filters) to prevent the client from successfully making requests to ad providers,” Green says. “These rules can be as simple as specifying a domain of a known ad provider or as complex as regular expressions to look for patterns in a URL.”

Some ad blockers provide default “lists” of rules and, hence, rely on the power of the community to continuously enhance these lists to account for the broad range of ad types, providers, and methods.

In addition, Green says there are some very effective approaches to ad blocking with HTML5 video players.

“Some ad blockers also modify the actual HTML5 DOM itself,” says Green, “to remove content that has embedded advertising or to prevent successfully requested ads from being placed in the page.”

CSAI remains susceptible to ad blockers, and many major publishers are now switching to SSAI, says Mike Green, vice president of marketing and business development for Brightcove. 

Limitations of Stream Stitching?

When asked to switch from a CSAI-based to an SSAI-based delivery solution, some companies ask whether it’s worth the trouble. There are several potential objections, chief among them the potential need to preprocess ad content to match the same adaptive bitrate (ABR) bitrates and segmentation length.

This means that a true stream stitching solution might need to aggregate the ads and primary content at the same streaming server, prior to broadcasting the stitched stream.

“SSAI does require new ad content to be preprocessed and prepared for delivery for new campaigns or third-party filled ads,” Green says. “The impact is small given that only the first few users will trigger the processing in which case the ad will be served the next time it needs to run on any platform or device in the region.”

Green says there are workarounds and ways to further reduce impact, such as “predefined ads or known ad creatives [which] can be sent to our SSAI system ahead of the campaign to make this a non-issue.”

The fact that most premium publishers or broadcasters have what Green calls “a known/ defined universe of creatives” means that the OVP can handle this, especially since premium content publishers “aren’t big users of open exchanges at all” when it comes to ad serving.

Green says the trade-off between preparing content versus a consistent user experience for mobile devices is a small one to make.

“Preparing the content properly for delivery is key to the best user experience,” Green says, “ensuring that the requesting device is getting the appropriate ad and content renditions for the specific connection or device type.”

Smith agrees, at least regarding the best practice approach for preseeding ads, where an ad is conditioned ahead of time for playback across all screens, which may include changing bitrates and segment length.

SSAI comes at no sacrifice to dynamic and personalized ads for every user, and only the first few users of a new campaign may go unmonetized, which is by orders of magnitude less of a negative impact than the ad breakage experienced on client-side delivery. Processing the ad in a server-side solution ensures that it will be seen in the most optimal viewing experience for users, spanning across any device.

All the while it ensures delivery of the ad scales to any size audience by being backed by a single scalable infrastructure specialized for ad and content delivery.

“The absolute best SSAI practice is to preseed the ad payload prior to the first request for an ad,” Smith says. “In case this isn’t feasible, for whatever reason, we can have a backup set of house ads or promos that can play for the first two or three users who make an ad call for an ad unit that ‘isn’t aboard’ yet.

“We call this a cache miss,” Smith continues. “In this case, we deliver those first few users a house ad or promo while preparing the proper ad. We then feed that ad to the cache so that every subsequent user is able to see the appropriate ad.”

While this initial ad delivery limitation could be perceived as a flaw, Smith stresses that the preseeding step can and should become standard operating procedure.

What’s the Next Battlefront?

Green says there’s another battle lurking: packet inspection.

“Advanced ad blockers have implemented more sophisticated methods by inspecting the actual Internet packets,” Green says, “not simply the request for bits and bytes but the actual bits and bytes. These ad blockers are effectively acting as a client proxy/VPN.”

While this approach can be more effective, it also raises a question of privacy.

“Would a user want a third party to actively ‘snoop’ all of their internet traffic?” Green says, noting that the traffic would be not only URLs but actual bits and bytes. He also points out that Apple banned a popular ad blocker app that was doing this on iOS devices, due to privacy concerns.

Still that may be a small price to pay for some users, especially those who want to see zero ads while watching premium content.

Until then, current SSAI solutions may suffice, at least when it comes to retaining a partial amount of lost ad revenue.

“A major U.S. broadcaster with a site that was heavily concentrated in tech savvy young men had an ad blocking problem,” Green says. “They implemented a straight A/B test (3 separate instances of the test) and found a gain of 50 percent in ads delivered with Lift as opposed to their client-side solution.”

Perhaps 50 percent is better than nothing, but in the ongoing war between ad serving and ad blocking technologies, the balance of power seems to shift every few weeks.

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “A Stitch in Time?”

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