This article originally appeared on the AppNexus Blog on August 1, 2011.
In my recent Ad Age piece on the disruptive nature of RTB technologies I took some shots at the rich media business. Specifically, I called it a “tech hairball”. Of all the points in the article, the rich media comments got the most feedback so I want a chance to explain exactly my criticism.
First, some brief background. The term “rich media” refers to display advertising creatives that utilize an ever-expanding collection of features like video, larger file size, social interactions, expansion beyond the banner slot, etc. Within the industry the term generally is associated with a set of vendors including PointRoll, MediaMind and DoubleClick (where I built and managed the rich media products). The fact that the whole business cannot be easily defined except in relation to the vendor offerings should raise eyebrows. Imagine if you couldn’t fully describe what a database was without reference to Oracle or Microsoft — that situation doesn’t exist in mature tech sectors, yet it is the case for the technology behind the most valuable digital ads running in display today.
At heart, the key issue that holds the rich media sector back is that the technical foundation of these ads remains immature and fragmented causing inefficiencies and complexities throughout the value chain. Rich media was invented by EyeBlaster and Unicast over ten years ago, yet virtually no standards have emerged to govern the delivery, reporting, or effectiveness of these creatives. In contrast, the in-stream video world has gone from inception to widespread adoption of the VAST and VPAID standards in less than five years. Mobile rich media is rapidly developing the ORMMA standard, potentially leaving us in a situation where it’s easier to develop cutting-edge mobile ads than browser display ads. Let’s examine the current state of rich media technology along the path of planning->creation->delivery->reporting->effectiveness and see how fragmentation continually limits the growth of the entire display business.
“Hey, let’s run a FatBoy on that placement!” For those not intimately aware, FatBoy is a trademark of PointRoll, and roughly corresponds to an expanding ad. I applaud PointRoll’s marketing strategy, which by all accounts has been hugely successful. But once again, imagine how silly this would sound if we were talking about databases in this manner, where the functionality was defined by a single vendor. For the sake of media planners and publisher campaign managers there needs to be a cross-vendor understanding of what the ads do. This lack of clarity on what rich media actually is, has practical effects because the same creative execution can be implemented very differently, and sometimes with different costs, across different vendors. The cost to the industry is wasted time, confusion, rework, etc.
Almost all rich media creative is based on Adobe’s Flash platform. Each vendor has built its own platform for extending Flash’s capabilities to achieve the various effects when the Flash creative runs in the browser. For example, in order to build an expanding creative, a vendor will build an interface for the Flash designer to expand the creative, and related functions to control the animation of the creative when expansion happens. But each vendor’s API is different, so while a DoubleClick creative might expand by the command conduit.expand(); the PointRoll creative will expand by pr.openPanel(1);. These are the obvious differences, but there are tons of subtle nuances you have to watch out for as a developer, like whether you need to manually stop your videos when an ad closes or not. Anyone in a creative department can attest to the fact that learning and optimizing against each vendor’s API is a massive pain in the neck, and causes the cost of creative development to go up and the quality to go down.
There is a fundamental tension between the desire of the creative agency to push the envelope and the desire of the publisher to maintain a clean and orderly website with well-understood performance measures. Unfortunately, this tension is largely administered through ad hoc processes and undocumented controls. Publishers want to control which types of creatives can appear in which ad slots on their page. For a simple example, imagine a publisher wants to only allow 100K of file size per creative on the homepage, but up to 200K would be permissible on deeper content pages. There is simply no effective way to execute this strategy at scale. The current strategy is to load every creative in a browser, check the fiddler logs, and try to decipher how each vendor does “polite download” to limit customer impact. Most publishers still can’t either proactively control what shows on their page, or at the very least figure out precisely what’s being sent behind advertiser tags.
Let’s talk about iFrames. Publishers put their ad tags in iFrames to speed page download (the content of the iFrame loads asynchronously, thus prioritizing the rest of the page over the ad), and to protect their page from malicious creatives that might read the page content or otherwise affect the user experience. Rich media ads, though, need to affect the page content by expanding or otherwise giving the rich out-of-banner experience. The 10-year old solution to this problem is for each vendor to place its own customized “iFrame breakout” file on every publisher’s domain, thus bypassing the security of the iFrame. There’s so much wrong with this, I’m tempted to write a separate blog post. First, you’ve moved from an environment of security to one governed by trust. Second, the ad server needs to know, somehow, which domains have which breakout files. Third, there’s a huge barrier to entry for serving rich media creatives from new vendors, since they’ll have to do all the legwork to install the file on 5,000 sites. All of these problems get worse — much worse — when we move from a direct, sales dominant model to an exchange model since the algorithms will not reliably be able to determine which ad can run successfully on which site. The current plan from most vendors and exchange providers (AppNexus included) is to create lists of site-vendor combinations and target accordingly… Ugh.
In an ad network or exchange environment there are many additional data points we need to know in order to successfully deliver a rich media creative. For example, which direction should the expandable expand? The current solution is to ask the creative designer to develop the ad such that it works in multiple directions, but this is, in practice, inconsistently done. Another option is to choose the most common combinations (skyscrapers generally expand left, leaderboards generally expand down), and only support those in non-direct environments. But even if we knew which direction the ad slot could expand, we would have no way to programmatically know which direction the creative was built to expand, so we’re back to manually checking every creative in a browser. Obviously, that’s not ideal.
Reporting is the most egregiously broken area for rich media, especially considering how important this is for evaluating the creative. Consider the clients’ perspective when buying expensive media with highly customized creative features like video or a game. The first question to the agency is “how did the ad perform?” Each vendor has created its own set of metrics to measure “interactivity,” “expansions” and other metrics. Unlike impressions and clicks, there are no standard IAB definitions for these metrics, how to calculate them, how to audit them, etc. As a result, the “interactivity rate” for a PointRoll creative will be different from the same rate on a DoubleClick creative, even if all other variables are the same. Consequently, the metric is devalued and the medium as a whole suffers. Next time you hear someone at a conference complain about “how confusing online metrics are,” think about this example.
Building on the lack of standard metrics for rich media, very little research has been done to prove that these expensive, highly customized ads are actually more effective than more simple Flash creatives. Personally, I’m convinced they are – I just haven’t seen the data. At DoubleClick, we published a study showing correlations between rich media and Dynamic Logic brand studies, which was terrific. However for such a large portion of the display spend, it’s astounding to me how little justification has been done.
Here’s a partial list of what needs to happen to help rich media scale:
- The IAB should establish standard format definitions and names. What is an “interstitial” and what is “polite download”? This shouldn’t be too difficult or controversial and has already been done for video.
- A working group consisting of the top vendors should look to standardize their Flash APIs. A tricky project, but incredibly valuable to the creative community.
- For the purposes of real-time bidding, the various delivery vendors are working incrementally to develop ways to express the metadata needed for ad requests and delivery. For example, indicating which vendors are supported on a tag prior to requesting the creative. A lot more needs to be done here, especially by the vendors, to allow automated discovery of creative metadata.
- The industry needs to adopt the so-called “Friendly iFrame” (PDF) technology developed by AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft. To simplify iFrame environments. I’d like to see the IAB take more of a leadership position on this technical innovation.
- The IAB must finally define rich media metrics. It doesn’t make sense that we have standards for impressions but not interactions. Remind me what the “I” stands for again?
As someone with a history in this space, I take some personal responsibility for not pursuing these initiatives myself! Moving forward, I would be happy to help in the development of solutions. I look forward to hearing your feedback.