Connection Counts in OTT: Part Four — Future Proofing the Advanced TV Ecosystem for Publishers

If we’ve learned anything from the advanced TV revolution of the past few years, it’s that change is constant—and its impact unpredictable. As new technologies and devices are introduced, as new formats catch on, and as forces such as COVID result in the unexpected combination of increased viewership, reduced ad budgets, and an upended upfront, it’s clear that there’s only so much you can prepare for.

Which is why Jeff Lee, director of advertising sales at PubMatic, a programmatic innovator, is focused on helping customers “future proof,” ensuring that his company, through its new OpenWrap OTT header-bidding product, is ready to respond to whatever new demands emerge, guaranteeing the best possible yield for publishers and the best possible experience for users.

“As live sports return to television, the luxury of stitching in ads minutes, hours, or even days in advance will be gone.”

For example, Lee notes, as live sports return to television, with more of them streaming than before the pandemic, the need to better engage with viewers in real time will be greater than it’s ever been. Header bidding technology for OTT will be critical for programmatic ad serving, especially when you have no control over when commercial breaks will be called. The luxury of stitching in ads minutes, hours, or even days in advance will be gone. “Header bidding will allow hundreds of advertisers to compete for the same ad slot inside an ad pod,” he notes. “You need to make good decisions within seconds. The waterfall won’t work.”

The importance of managing inventory that can change as new needs appear has been especially evident, Lee points out, during the pandemic. “As the time spent on streaming platforms has gone up, we’ve seen our inventory spike by upwards of 30%. All those publishers who were trying to fill their ad space with fixed deals, fixed rates, and upfronts are finding they have a lot of unsold inventory.” And with both limited budgets and unsold inventory, they have been faced with “advertisers who do not want to buy that inventory for the same fixed price anymore.” Who benefited? Publishers “who had header bidding saw an outsized increase in spend because they had the technology to allow them to respond to real-time market conditions and maximize yield and fill,” Lee says.

Keeping Viewers in Their Seats

But even in the midst of change, some things remain the same. For publishers, says Lee, there are “two broad themes: ‘How can I increase yield?’ and ‘How can I create a better viewer experience?’” These two themes, he adds, are interconnected. “The publishers don’t want to just optimize for yield, they want to optimize advertising for experience,” he says. “Publishers see the ad experience as a core part of the content experience. And they’re asking how they can use ads to improve the viewer experience through branding and overall stickiness.”

That’s certainly true at video-on-demand publisher Glewed TV, says Eric Fitzgerald, Glewed’s vice president of strategy. “We’re a content company first and foremost,” he says, noting that the company’s young-skewing audience has been attracted by a combination of varied and targeted programming and the lack of a subscription. But to hold that audience and increase Glewed’s already high average view time—68 minutes—it’s critical that it keeps viewers in their seats, “relaxing on the couch and ingesting a lot of content in a single session,” Fitzgerald says.

“What we’re looking for is user experience and efficiency,” he explains. To do this, Glewed has been reducing ad density and is keeping its ad spots shorter. This way, Fitzgerald contends, it’s less likely that viewers will use the commercial break to grab a snack or take a call. “They’re more likely to sit through a 60-second break,” he says, “and that’s a significant value to the advertiser.”

But if the ads are truly going to be part of a good user experience, they can’t be blank or inappropriate; there has to be competitive separation and frequency capping. And latency can be a fatal flaw. “The relationship between ad platforms and the viewers is so fragile,” Lee notes, “any bad experience can be a huge turn off and the viewer will switch away.”   

Working in One Ecosystem   

Lee’s answer to preventing a bad experience is PubMatic’s OpenWrap OTT. “Combining header bidding and ad podding capabilities contributes to a better viewer experience, which has stickiness, and which gets you a positive feedback loop to get the viewers back again for better yield.” Additionally, the new product, Lee explains, allows “publishers to work in one UI ecosystem, enabling them to take advantage of competition between open exchanges and deals. In that way, they can report and control everything in one platform.”

This approach, notes Fitzgerald, aligns with Glewed’s efficiency goals. “We look for partners that can give us the opportunity to provide value that’s going to make our users have a better ad experience and stay on longer,” he says. “When we’re working with a header bidding solution like OpenWrap, it allows us to have a competitive bidding landscape for the SSPs that we work with. It’s very hard when we have a handful of SSPs and we’re running specific deals on each one to get each individual ad impression to the highest paying bidder. With OpenWrap, each SSP can bid at a price point that is the specific value of that impression. Then the system can determine the highest value that fits the criteria and then play that ad to the user.”

But Fitzgerald needs to make sure that in pursuing efficiency, he’s not compromising user experience. Glewed does this by relying on OpenWrap’s server-side ad insertion technology. “With SSAI,” he explains, “we’re able to call the ads through OpenWrap right before the ads are going to be played. And we’re able to determine all the rules that we set for which ads are going to be shown when and deliver them seamlessly into the content stream to the user. The ad just rolls in immediately. OpenWrap allows us to do that by pre-fetching the ads, holding them for a short period of time, delivering them, and reporting back to all advertisers when they ran and what they ran against.”

“Having controls, reporting, and a dedicated team supporting you through a single platform is a real game-changer for publisher ad teams.”

Reporting, Lee contends, is the unsung hero. “The last thing people think about when they’re choosing partners is the ease of use and reporting,” he says. “It’s not sexy like money and better user experience. However, having controls, reporting, and a dedicated team supporting you through a single platform is a real game-changer for publisher ad teams. Without that, you would have to create API connections with all partners and pull them into your own reporting infrastructure and have it push something out. And often, home-brewed solutions become increasingly complex, or multiple sources of data come in at different times of the day. And that’s a frustrating house of cards to manage. We’ve seen it in the desktop, mobile, and video worlds, and we see it for OTT as well.” There’s a lot of opportunity right now for OTT publishers to avoid the pain others went through in the past, Lee says, adding that he’s happy to see many publishers move to improve their tech today when planning for the future.

Next week, we’ll dig deeper into the user experience by exploring the impact of advanced TV on consumers—and will look at which new ad experience developments are keeping them glued to their seats.

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