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Industry Acronyms

  • SSAI: Server Side Ad Insertion
  • DAI: Dynamic Ad Insertion
  • SSP: Supply Side Platform
  • DSP: Demand Side Platform
  • DMP: Data Management Platform
  • RTB: Real Time Bidding

Today more and more video consumption is being monetized with ad supported content. This includes inserting video ads into both live TV broadcasts (replacing broadcast ads) as well as video on demand.

Traditionally, video ads have been delivered with what is known as client-side ad insertion. There is technology on the video player that calls an ad from an ad server and the video ad is played on the client side.

SSAI Server Side Ad Insertion

Problems with Client-Side Ad Insertion

  • While client-side ad insertion is a common solution for ad personalization and targeting, it has technological hurdles that can be difficult to overcome in certain situations, particularly, live broadcasts such as sports, events, and news
  • Client-side ad insertion is subject to high network latency and shifts in video quality due to changes in codec, resolution and bit rate
  • There is no elegant solution capable of handling seamless live streaming
  • Requires code changes across multiple platforms and devices
  • As the use of ad-blocking software grows, ad fill rates on desktop and mobile web environments shrink

In addition to its technological limitations, client-side ad insertion can also have a noticeably negative effect on the viewer experience – UX / UI:

The trend is to move to server side ad insertion, which supports all devices and the ads are dynamically inserted, “stitched” into the video stream at runtime so it cannot be blocked by ad blockers (this is the case with client side ad insertion). SSAI allows you to dynamically deliver video ads as pre-roll, and midroll into both live TV and video on demand so each user can get a targeted ad based on device, IP address and the content being consumed. The ad stitching is achieved by manipulating the manifest, that is the information that is delivered to each device at run time.

What is server-side ad insertion (SSAI) and dynamic ad insertion (DAI)?

SSAI is a process used to insert ads into a piece of high-quality, long-form content. For media owners, the ad insertion process allows for a buffer-less transition from content, to ad, then back to content, providing the same user experience as broadcast TV.

Server-side ad insertion is a combination of manifest manipulation, ad server communication, and ad bit rate and resolution normalization, all of which happens on the server-side before presenting a manifest to clients. Server-side ad insertion may also be referred to as dynamic ad insertion, or ad stitching.

Server-side ad insertion is difficult to get right for numerous reasons:

  • Server-side ad insertion requires a highly scalable origination service
  • Personalized manifests are not cacheable
  • Reporting and custom player behavior requires clients to know an ad has been played
  • Different ad standards (VAST, MAP), ad servers, origin servers, and player environments complicate server-side ad insertion workflows

To cope with fluctuations in demand for just-in-time server-side ad insertion, a highly scalable architecture is required – particularly for broadcasters that must deal with the sharp peaks in demand that breaking news, sports events and popular TV series bring. Cloud-based video processing with a server-side ad insertion integration is one way broadcasters can scale to meet audience demand.

When events are underway, the number of concurrent viewers can vary greatly and unpredictably. For example, viewership for a closely played game may remain steady for much of the contest, then surge by hundreds of thousands of new viewers during the last few minutes. The key to managing viewer variances is in encoding and packaging that can be virtualized for rapid deployment and hosted in a cloud infrastructure for quick auto-scaling.

Because dedicated single path hardware encoders and packagers lack flexibility, the practical solution is to spin up instances of cloud-based video processing as they are needed. The cloud is uniquely well suited to creating millions of individually tailored manifests of content and advertising for live-streamed events.

What are some of the benefits of SSAI?

  • SSAI helps prevent ad blocking by seamlessly stitching together content and ad.
  • It provides users with an optimal, broadcast-like viewing experience that often provides high-quality video and ad creatives. Moreover, the technology can adapt to different bandwidths to support poor connections by rendering a lower-quality stream without buffering.
  • SSAI provides some operational efficiencies as it eliminates the need to maintain multiple SDKs.
  • It allows broadcasters to insert digital ads over a linear slate.
  • Finally, it helps media owners with large-scale live event inventory deal with concurrency.

Who is involved in the workflow?

This process involves an SSAI vendor that sits between the online video player (OVP) and ad server to mediate the stitching of the ads into the content. Some media owners also have their own proprietary solution.

What are the typical roles of an SSAI vendor?

An SSAI vendor will:

  • Identify ad breaks in the content;
  • Transcode ad creatives into low, medium, and high-quality versions to allow the stream to play without buffering in a wide range of connectivity levels;
  • Transcode the ad into the proper adaptive bit rate formats, most commonly MPEG-DASH and HLS;
  • Insert ads and stitch the ad and video content together; and
  • Communicate with the player via a manifest to indicate which files need to be played at which time.

How do SSAI vendors limit buffering?

SSAI vendors put a stitched stream through a transcoding process that converts it into an adaptive bit rate (ABR) streaming format. ABR is able to detect an end user’s current bandwidth in real time and tailor the stream to the optimal output. Allowing vendors to return a lower-quality stream for poor internet connections, and a higher-quality stream to those with strong bandwidth.

What devices can support SSAI?

SSAI-supported content can be accessed across all devices in both web or app environments. This means users can stream SSAI content on desktop, mobile, and connected TV devices.

Is SSAI beneficial for live inventory and events?

Yes, SSAI is helpful for any media owner that is transferring over from the traditional linear space. Server-side ad insertion can be used to replace traditional ad breaks with digital ads, whether that is a live or pre-recorded event. Broadcasters will also utilize an SSAI vendor’s technology to handle high spikes in concurrency normally seen with large-scale events. Some vendors have the ability to pre-cache ads, so they can start calling their ad server before the break actually occurs.

What types of media owners primarily use SSAI?

Operators, pay-TV providers, broadcasters, and programmers all use SSAI. This includes media owners that stream live events, live-linear cable TV, or have video-on-demand (VOD) assets. However, any media owner that finds the features of SSAI to be beneficial can utilize the technology to stream their

What does the SSAI workflow normally look like?

  1. A user sits down to watch an episode of their favorite show on their connected device. After the user clicks play on that content, the video player will request a manifest from the SSAI vendor. A manifest is a set of instructions that instruct the player on tasks like where it can locate video files and how long to play them for.
  2. After receiving the manifest, the player accesses the video content from a content delivery network (CDN), the group of servers that work to deliver content to connected devices. Once the content is accessed, the player begins to stream it.
  3. When it is time for an ad break in the user’s content, a marker in the stream indicates to the SSAI vendor that it is time for an ad to be served. The SSAI vendor will then send an ad request on behalf of the player and call into a supply of ads for an ad or a pod of ads.
  4. SSPs begins to source ad content in real time by evaluating bids from DSPs, direct-sold campaigns, private marketplaces, and additional third-party sources. The SSP then returns the ad or pod of ads to the SSAI vendor.
  5. The SSAI vendor takes the video file and puts it into low, medium, and high-quality versions. This allows for the video file to adapt to different levels of the end user’s internet connectivity. It then stores the file on its CDN for any future use.
  6. Once the ad is ready to be served to the end user, the SSAI vendor updates the manifest and instructs the video player to play back the ad content. The end user sees that ad in a buffer-less fashion, similar to that of linear TV.
  7. After the ads have played, the manifest once again updates the player to resume playing the end user’s chosen content. Tracking beacons will also be fired, alerting all the involved parties that the ad served.

Final Thoughts / Conclusion:

  • Monetization of video ad inventory is still highly dependent on the region (for instance the US market is much more mature than Latin America).
  • SSAI solves a lot of issues in terms of ad blocking and device support.
  • More and more publishers are embracing SSAI and this will continue to grow and mature. Publishers are still challenged by low CPM ‘s and fill rates.
  • Verifying users via registration and transparency of the content will improve pricing and fill rates.
  • In general SSAI is a technology that will improve video ad monetization.

 

Part II of this article is forthcoming in September 2020.


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