First, a quick review of how auto-play inhabits the digital world:
Level 1 – no auto-play: an online video only plays if the user clicks, creating the most controlled and brand-enhancing user experience.
Level 2 – once a user clicks to play an online video, the next video plays automatically until the user clicks to stop, which is acceptable, as the user has already consented to being in video-watching mode.
Level 3 – an online video begins playing immediately when the page loads, often causing frustration, as the user has not been given the chance to opt in (particularly if the user is careful to only play video content when connected to WiFi in order to manage data costs).
Level 4 – an irrelevant online ad video plays somewhere on the page, often not even in the immediate screen view, creating a negative user experience that leads to prompt window-closing and quick, but poor, impressions of the brand in the ad.
In crafting an auto-play video strategy, Level 1 is clearly the safest way to go and preserves the best user experience. Level 2 and Level 3 are sub-optimal, and Level 4 is the silent (or not so silent) brand killer. Level 4 auto-play is practically a guaranteed way to lose consumers and damage a brand, and should therefore be avoided at all costs.
Auto-play as a video strategy has gained traction with publishers as an effective tactic for monetizing ad inventory, embraced by digital giants such as ESPN, The Washington Post, Weather.com and Facebook. Yet consumer feedback tells it all. I am not a sports fan, but for my friends who are, ESPN is the go-to site. Their increasing complaints about auto-play video stuck with me, creating a passive dislike for the ESPN brand that ultimately prompted the topic of this article.
Facebook’s announcement in March that it had launched auto-play video ads on its platform was equally disheartening. Granted, Facebook runs auto-play videos with the sound off to create a slightly less disruptive user experience. Still, if one of the largest online platforms embraces the practice of auto-play, doesn’t it set a bad precedent for the industry overall? For publishers, the user experience is critical to the success of the site, and most users would rank auto-play as one of their top five worst online experiences. Is the incremental profit on extra inventory worth alienating new consumers -- or even worse, loyal followers?
Marketers are complicit, too. If users associate your brand message with auto-play annoyance, the long-term impact on brand equity is more severe. Yet marketers continue to endorse sites that employ auto-play video tactics with their ad spend, essentially paying up for negative brand association. Marketers’ desire to squeeze every last drop out of CPMs is forcing publishers into tactics that jeopardize user experience and branding.
In fairness to the marketers who are actively trying to avoid this problem, programmatic ad buying can obscure how ad videos are being served to the user. This lack of transparency is due, in part, to the fact that an ad within a programmatic buying environment will likely pass through multiple ad exchanges before reaching its destination.
How can marketers distinguish click-to-play from auto-play? Similarly, how can marketers measure substantial views of their ad videos from auto-plays with the sound off, which the user (like me, on Facebook) neither watches nor listens to? In short, how can advertisers trust video “play” numbers?
Publishers and advertisers both need to navigate auto-play video very carefully. Publishers, you control the user experience and should push back on this practice and focus on building trust with marketers. Marketers, you should think twice before defaulting to a site that uses this practice, as it condones poor industry standards and will hurt your brand in the long term.
When it comes to addressing auto-play video, it takes two to tango.