Browser updates and outdated KPIs: Why silence is golden in video

By Steve Sottile, President US, Unruly

It’s a tense time for publishers. On average, desktop traffic is declining in favor of mobile. In the US, 63 percent of online traffic comes from smartphones and tablets, which means that desktop display traffic, currently sold via direct sales team and SSPs, is also declining.

On the face of it, that might not sound like a big deal. It’s not like people are giving up the internet, they’re just consuming more content on their phones. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the online advertising landscape is changing in such a way that it’s creating a multitude of issues across the advertising ecosystem, with immediate effect. For example, Apple’s recent Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) announcement and update for Safari, which will block all third-party cookies by default, carry massive implications for publishers when their content is viewed through that browser.

That’s a lot of eyeballs being separated from targeted advertising, especially when you think that Safari is the default browser for the world’s 700 million iPhone users — not to mention the 1.3 billion Apple devices currently in use worldwide.

The industry is also nervously waiting to see how Google’s Chrome and other browsers will follow suit with their own updates, which will have further impact on advertisers. One of the big areas of concern is audibility.

Let’s look at HAVOC (Human, Audible, Viewable On Completion). The Coalition for Better Ads (CBA) guidelines dictate that autoplay video ads should be served sound off, which everyone agrees makes for a better consumer experience — to the extent that most of the major browsers are issuing updates that will block publishers if they try to run autoplay ads with sound on.

Persuading audiences to perform an extra task in activating sound, on top of any campaign call-to-action, would be a near-impossible task, so advertisers and agencies started to work around it with creativity. If the format default was no sound, they started to optimize the creative for silence. There’s a growing body of insight around the effectiveness of different editing and subtitle techniques, which boils down to keeping things concise and avoiding full transcriptions.

This sound-free creative editing might seem like the winning solution, until you realize that buyers still chase HAVOC KPIs and therefore equate sound-on to success. This ignores the engagement potential of a well-crafted silent ad and comes into direct conflict with the new browser updates.

Lessons from history
When online video took off in the mid-2000s, the industry quickly realized that effective digital marketing wasn’t just about putting TV ads on YouTube, yet our KPIs for video today seem to be hardwired to the old TVC ideal.

In effect, we’ve witnessed the creation of a new ad format without realizing it: the silent video unit. User acceptance of silent video is likely to be driven by Facebook, where 85 percent of video content is consumed in silence. We already understand the concept of multi-screening, where people look at their phones while watching television — but we also need to consider multi-listening, where audiences are browsing the web while listening to Spotify or an episode of their favourite podcast. In these instances, sound-on video would be disruptive and annoying.

The future is silent
There’s still more to learn about optimizing creative for silence, but it’s a growing space given the widespread adoption of the CBA-style ad standards. But HAVOC/AVOC as a metric comes from a time before we understood that silent video could work as well as, if not better, than an audible counterpart.

The big question is this: Are the current benchmarks still relevant? We strongly advise buyers to consider viewability metrics over audible measurement.

Viewability is a far more accurate measure of attention and validity than audibility. In a recent Digiday article MEC, North America said branded videos from its clients average 85-90 percent silent video views, with no detrimental effect on KPIs like brand lift or purchase intent. This is corroborated by a 2019 study we conducted with Lumen, Attention and Brand Impact, which compared the same ad with sound on and sound off. Both videos achieved similar impact on the perception of ‘good quality’ (sound on 46 percent, sound off 43 percent) and ‘good value’ (sound on 30 percent, sound off 28 percent).

It’s a fascinating area which requires more study, and it’s even prompted us to conduct research into the role of audio in the digital marketing mix. But for now, all the available indicators are that the best silent video experience should focus on compelling visuals to keep audiences glued to the screen, with invitations to engage through interactive, clickable — and most importantly — measurable features.

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