Auto-Play Videos: The Silent Killer

The topic of auto-play versus click-to-play for online video is picking up steam again, especially with the proliferation of programmatic ad buying.  It concerns me that auto-play video is evolving into the industry norm, as it ultimately damages the brands of publishers and marketers alike.

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, 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.

8 comments about "Auto-Play Videos: The Silent Killer".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, June 26, 2014 at 1:44 p.m.

    For decades, every TV commercial was auto-play. I would never see ads if I had to click-them, not even for products I want. Let's face it, ads need to be intrusive because nearly everyone, very few exceptions, would rather skip them and get on with the entertainment! Why else would binge viewing be so popular?

  2. Dan Ciccone from MEDIAFICIONADO, June 26, 2014 at 1:54 p.m.

    Interesting viewpoint from an author who represents a site that auto-plays the same FX :30 ad over and over in its video section.... :-0

  3. Natalie D angelo from Sharecare, June 26, 2014 at 2:44 p.m.

    @ Jen Sargent. Can you point us in the direction of the research or studies on the correlation between auto-play and impact on brand perception or brand affinity? Thanks.

  4. Jen Sargent from HitFix, June 26, 2014 at 3:20 p.m.

    @ Dan Ciccone - Hi Dan, we do not currently auto-play video content on our site. You are referring to an Ad unit (not a pre-roll ad, just an ad unit) that happens to play video. What I'm referring to is inflating video stream numbers by auto-playing the actual video content. Hope that helps clarify. We, like many publishers, are closely watching the market and consumer behavior to determine the best experience.

  5. Jen Sargent from HitFix, June 26, 2014 at 3:32 p.m.

    @Natalie - I've seen some research from Millward Brown (part of WPP) that touches on this topic of brand perception vs. context.

  6. Phil Banfield from Q1Media, June 26, 2014 at 5:12 p.m.

    I disagree with this author's claims. Users who click to play videos are not clicking to play video ads, they are clicking to access video content. They are hijacked by pre-roll which is a 20th century format attempting to replicate TV ads. That format completely fails to engage the user and, especially in a dynamic and fast paced online environment where the user should have ultimate control, forces the user into an antiquated linear ad viewing experience without their consent.

    Autoplay video, if done properly, can give users the choice to opt out of viewing without blocking their access to content the way preroll does.

  7. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion, June 26, 2014 at 7:57 p.m.

    Moreover, when I am researching at work and I hit a site with an auto-play video with sound, it is annoying and sometimes inappropriate in an office. If I can't stop the sound or the entire video quickly, I back off the page. When Facebook sends me videos that play automatically without the sound, I move the newsfeed up until the video is hidden. Either way, I usually don't see who the advertiser is.

  8. David Shor from Prove, June 27, 2014 at 1:26 a.m.

    I like autoplay when it is triggered at the time the user is scrolling the frame into prime viewing position. Facebook did it right.

    I think the article may fail to distinguish the issues related to customer experience vs. advertiser payments for unwanted video views.

    With viewability protections increasingly coming online with video ad networks which often provide for a minimum viewing duration and that at least 50% of the frame is viewable (too low a % in my opinion), the industry is tackling the issue.

    Autoplay when the frame emerges in view is the likely long-term winner until voice control, eye tracking and mind control are the new experience controllers.

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