‘An engineered feel-good factor’: Why autoplay video will persist

Despite gripes that it harms the user experience, autoplay video isn’t going anywhere.

Autoplay ads have allowed publishers to eke out incremental revenue through video, but often to the detriment of user experience. As browsers Chrome and Safari have developed filters to block intrusive ads, publishers say they have steadily improved their sites to prioritize user experience, making muted autoplay video the new normal for publishers.

Publishers argue that muted autoplay is not an intrusive ad format and that there’s a misconception that autoplay is not premium. Sixty percent of publishers use muted autoplay to boost digital video views, according to a Digiday survey of more than 50 publisher executives. But despite delivering strong view metrics, muted autoplay’s effectiveness is debatable for driving brand metrics like awareness or purchase intent.

“[Autoplay] not the best experience, but it’s somewhat normalized,” said Meredith Artley, svp and editor-in-chief of CNN Digital Worldwide on the Digiday Podcast in January. “If there’s a significant slice of pie that says autoplay is happening in a lot of places, audiences might not love it, but it’s something you have to do. It’s one of our biggest collective sins.”

To some extent, publishers face pressure to keep using autoplay from agencies with an eye on keeping view counts high, meeting short-term goals rather than building longer-term audience strategies.

“It’s an engineered feel-good factor, an artificial bubble,” said Alessandro De Zanche, an independent consultant and former News UK executive. “It’s delusional short-term thinking.”

“It’s a shit experience whether you mute it or not,” said one publishing exec. “We’re all mercenary, but we need a dose of self-awareness.”

Publishers like News UK, Time Inc. and The Washington Post have moved to click-to-play or click-for-sound ad formats, which arguably offer a better user experience, as they show the audience intends to watch the content if they click.

Perform Group’s sports player, ePlayer, which runs on publisher sites like MailOnline, The Independent and MSN, uses semantic technology Perform built in-house to serve contextually relevant sound-on scroll-to-play video content. Since rolling out the technology in mid-2017, Perform said it has seen a 21 percent rise in view-through rate on the content.

“Video is all about trust,” said James Pringle, co-founder and CEO of video recommendation engine Suggestv, which works with publishers that use autoplay and click-to-play formats like Global and Unilad. “Click to play is harder to scale, but you can encourage engagement through clear titles, calls to action and by making discovery simple, contextual and consistent.”

In November, Suggestv switched the label on its video recommendation player that appears at the end of text articles from “related video” to “watch next,” leading to a higher click-through rate, which Pringle believes is partly because the language resembles an editorial format rather than in-stream native units like Taboola and Outbrain.

According to ad buyers, the CPMs for muted autoplay and click-to-play formats are roughly the same, around £15 ($21) CPM for a news publisher, despite the better user experience and higher quality of the engagement on click to play. Publishers, therefore, don’t have much financial incentive to prioritize click to play. The similar CPM rates are partly because autoplay is bought on different models like cost per view or cost per completed view, while selling click to play on cost per view would pose more of a risk for publishers. A lack of research on how these formats affect brand metrics also affects their perceived value.

“The direction of travel is that advertisers are asking for more scrutiny over metrics like viewability, completed views and content the ad is in front of over just views,” said Jonathan Waite, head of product at Amplifi. “If you’re optimizing toward those other metrics, it will lend itself to click-to-play formats.”

While there’s more enthusiasm across the board for the click-to-play format, it varies across sector, objectives and advertiser type, said Liz Duff, head of media and investment at Total Media. “There’s a bit more nervousness moving away from autoplay for brands that are less well-known or less established. Autoplay can work well at driving brand awareness.”

As with most newer digital formats, the creative assets for click-to-play formats must improve, but change won’t happen overnight. “Creative agencies have no real interest in creating short-form content that really works,” Waite said. “There will likely be a rise in specialist companies creating this.”

For more on the future of TV and video, subscribe to Digiday’s weekly Video Briefing email. 


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