If you are a savvy marketer (or on your path to becoming one), you’ve probably heard about CTV advertising. Some are excited about it and say this is what you should be putting your money into. Others, however, take CTV ads with the grain of salt.
At Fiksu we believe that CTV has enormous potential but at the same time it has technology vulnerabilities that open the door to fraudsters. In this article, we’re going to examine the strengths and weaknesses of SSAI, the most popular technology for serving ads on CTV.
So what on earth is SSAI and why it’s important? In the nutshell, server-side ad insertion (AKA ad stitching or dynamic ad insertion) is a way of serving ads in which ad content and the requested video are delivered as a single continuous stream. For media owners, this means a smooth ad insertion process and seamless transition from the ad to the main content. And viewers get to enjoy a pleasant TV-like user experience.
The initial reason SSAI became widely adopted in the industry was that the first CTV devices lacked some capabilities crucial for client-side advertising. However, this is no longer an issue. As time passed, the inability of early devices to support client-side ads was resolved, and newer environments are already much more supportive of client-side code implementation.
Today SSAI targets much bigger problems in the OTT industry, enabling new ways of video content monetization on advertiser platforms.. Currently, SSAI is the most fitting way of advertising for live streams and video-on-demand. According to experts, 61.7% of programmatic ads on OTT/CTV are delivered by SSAI.
One of SSAI’s superpowers is that it creates a unique stream for each customer. Let’s look at what happens without server-side ad insertion using the example of YouTube. The Google-owned video-sharing platform uses client-side insertion. Each time before the requested video loads, users experience a small interruption. This happens because ads are fetched from the ad server to the web page of the user. Then another interruption occurs before the main video is played. The reason for this is that the ad and the video are two separate files that are played sequentially.
With the SSAI things work much smoother. The sequencing is happening at the CMS level, as opposed to the browser level. Thus, a viewer receives a single stream with both the ad and the actual video they requested.
Things to Love About SSAI
“Is all this just to avoid some barely noticeable glitches?” you may ask. Of course no. As a matter of fact, SSAI addresses a number of issues in OTT/CTV programmatic advertising.
- User experience problems. With the client-side insertion, sometimes only ad content loads and a video doesn’t. SSAI enables creators to avoid such troubles. Another challenge with the user experience that SSAI overcomes is buffering. By stitching two videos together, the buffering time reduces simply because the quality of both videos is the same. Plus, this technology can adapt to the user’s bandwidth. If the internet connection is poor, a lower quality stream is rendered without buffering.
- Ad Blocking. The way most ad blockers work is actually pretty simple: they scan the pages and use their filter lists to prevent any requests from third-party servers. As a result, the promotional content is in fact loaded, but creatives aren’t displayed. SSAI helps avert this problem: since an ad and video content are in the same stream, no requests are made from ad servers. No calls mean nothing to block. Experts claim that SSAI leaves no reason for using ad blockers.
- Irrelevant ads. Thanks to SSAI’s ability to dynamically select creatives for a specific video and insert it into a consumer’s stream, advertisers are empowered with tools for offering viewers relevant ads. SSAI-based session management tools offer advertisers and publishers an understanding of users’ location, device type, and some activity history.
- Can you imagine how many people are viewing the Oscars or Superbowl live? A lot! Each large scale live event attracts millions of viewers, a considerable number of them come from CTV (with mobile being the dominant device – 62% of viewership). Live streams require managing a myriad of users and their personalized streams. SSAI allows to pre-fetch content and pace out ad requests.
Things to Hate
If you think SSAI seems to be too good to be true, it’s not. Though it may look like a perfect solution for advertising on CTV, many marketers are wary of this technology. And here’s why.
Pixalate, a company that provides a fraud management system, believes invalid SSAI to be the major contributor to the fraud on OTT/CTV. Here’s the hard truth: 26% of SSAI transactions in programmatic CTV are invalid. With the help of machines, fraudsters mimic SSAI proxy servers. But because this technology is such a common practice, it’s rarely subjected to mistrust. That’s why such schemes in most cases aren’t identified and addressed timely.
The problem in the industry is that companies are either uninformed about the fraud risks related to this technology, or they don’t know how to address them. Legitimate SSAI vendors available on the market cannot be the solution to the problem, as they are just an additional layer that helps fraudsters hide. Third-party companies that detect fraud and filter invalid SSAI transactions might offer some temporary fixes.
Incompatibility with Current AD Technologies
Most current ad technologies are built on the client-side and simply don’t support SSAI. Therefore, most measurements (viewability, interactivity, and clickability) are not available.
When an ad is served with the help of server-side ad insertion, the client code is still implemented to make sure it works with the current ad technology. This means excessive complexity and maintenance.
Inability to Serve VPAID
Over half of all the video pre-rolls are played in VPAID. Unfortunately, SSAI doesn’t support this interactive ad format. And this, in turn, leads to less effective marketing activities on the platforms and consequently smaller ad revenue. Yes, some vendors claim to serve VPAID using SSAI. But they do this using both client- and server-side technologies. Let’s be honest here, it makes the situation only more complicated.
The SSAI Industry Standards
In order to make this technology more reliable and secure, IAB together with releasing VAST 4.2 also offered some guidelines. All of them concern HTTP headers. These recommendations can be divided into three groups:
- Stitching providers need to make sure they are not mistaken for ad fraud. This can be done with the help of 2 HTTP headers: X-Device-IP (for the IP address of the device for which the proxy is making a request) and X-Device-User-Agent(for the User-Agent of the client on which the proxy is making a request).
- Advised. It is advisable to include the following HTTP headers: X-Device-Referer which shares the referer header value (the one the client would have used in a non-proxied request); X-Device-Accept-Language header for the language a user would have used in a non-proxied request; and X-Device-Requested-With set to the X-Requested-With header value that the client would have used when making a request itself.
- Also, the guidelines say ad stitching providers may choose(but are not required) to include the following two HTTP headers. The first one is X-Forwarded-For: used for backward compatibility. Presently, this header is outdated. And the second header is X-Device-*: it passes all HTTP headers a user would’ve sent in a non-proxied request.
Server-side ad insertion does help to move the CTV advertising market forward. It offers effective solutions. At the same time, there are some issues marketers should keep in focus. The industry is now starting to take measures for SSAI standardization. Still, there’s a lot that needs to be done before SSAI can be used freely.