Better for All? The IAB’s Latest Video Ad Guidance Falls Short on Great Expectations

By Ilhan Zengin, CEO, ShowHeroes Group

US digital video spend is set to reach $93 billion this year, taking the lion’s share of ad budget in a challenging market – buoyed by demand for premium CTV. With ad dollars flooding into a rapidly evolving space, the challenge for the industry is twofold.

First, we have to create a web-based taxonomy that is fair and transparent, delivering value for buyers and sellers of all sizes across a complex ecosystem. Secondly, we must prioritize a new, user-centric caliber of ad experience; one that elevates the needs and interests of its audience as a core performance metric.

IAB Tech Lab’s new tweaks to its technical specifications falls short of these challenges; though not for want of trying. The trade body this month attempted to clarify guidelines it issued last year on the difference between instream and outstream placements. Faced with criticism that its narrow definitions would preclude 90% of existing inventory from qualifying as instream, it has responded by wiring in more flexibility.

Yet this latest round of updates – while a welcome step in the right direction – doesn’t go far enough in capturing the link between video ad formats and the realities of our current watching environments.

The question of audio

In its updated taxonomy, the IAB has shifted somewhat from its previous position on sound, acknowledging that audibility “can’t be the sole criteria” defining an instream ad; not least due to Chrome’s auto-muting of most video players.

However, the more pertinent issue is why should audio be counted at all? These days, 75% of videos are played on mobile devices; nearly all with sound off. Moreover, that figure climbs steadily higher with video’s most prolific audience – millennials and Gen Z consumers.

Equally, one of the major principles of a new-look digital ad industry centers around the need to become more inclusive and diverse. Yet, making audio a deciding factor of whether an ad is premium or not does not take into account the experience of around 48 million Americans who live with deafness or some form of hearing loss.

It’s good to see the IAB adding an “explicit demonstrated intent to watch the video” as another criteria for the updated instream category. This clause is a nod to the type of privacy-friendly, high attention and contextually relevant experience we all want to create, as the golden standard of new-era video ads.

A good video ad is, by definition, one that a consumer wants to watch because it aligns with their interests at a given point in time. Yet the addition could benefit from the recognition that access to audio doesn’t necessarily signal this intention. Instead, quality, attention and relevance should take centrestage.

An uneven playing field

The IAB has signaled further adaptability with the creation of a new “accompanying content” category, enabling a greater range of bidding value between videos that run alongside content in some form, and those that are standalone.

This may help in eking out additional revenue for smaller, independent publishers who cannot qualify for the top-tier instream classification. Yet still, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem of a taxonomy whereby scarce, overpriced instream inventory weighs in favor of platform giants such as YouTube.

Meanwhile, independent publishers around the world risk being frozen out from video’s most lucrative ad format. This comes despite their hallmark of journalistic content – a natural breeding ground for deep-seated audience engagement.

With instream ads commanding significantly higher rates than their outstream equivalents, a greater sense of visibility over ROI is key for buyers; especially given digital’s legacy of spammy, low-quality video ads.

But resetting the needle shouldn’t cleave a gap between monetization and compelling storytelling; the very quality that could galvanize brands, consumers and the industry at large.

Reshaping the instream framework

The IAB’s latest rejig on video classifications show that it is listening to feedback from the ad tech world; and that alone is meaningful. It’s also helpful to have a broader structure of categorisations to choose from, in recognition of the many complexities that bubble beneath today’s video market landscape.

However, any taxonomy we move ahead with now must be both simple and refined enough to reflect the reality of user behaviors. A stronger framework would be to split the instream category into two: long primary instream and short primary instream.

  1. Long primary instream reflects lean-back scenarios where consumers immerse themselves in TV-like digital video entertainment, with a focus on mostly long-form content.
  2. Short primary instream, meanwhile, signals web surfing situations whereby consumers are dipping into multiple short-form videos across different channels. It’s an ideal setting for intelligent ad tech to serve contextually relevant brand messaging in a seamless way.

The high attention rates and subsequent user engagements that this strategy derives is proof in itself of audience intention; the results speak for themselves. At a time when all eyes are on the carbon footprint of streaming video, it’s an approach that minimizes inventory wastage, too, by placing ads in the most compatible settings possible.

The real value of a video ad should be measured in how attuned it is to audience interests and preferences. Instream categories alone cannot make the difference here; but allowing a greater breadth of definition will allow brands to better support the kind of world-class user experience that should be our signature in a new age of ad tech.