Online videos are a dominant force in the digital era, with hundreds of millions of hours of video watched every day—on YouTube alone—and digital advertising is the best way to take advantage of that market share.
To the viewer, this is a simple idea, and the mechanism behind the execution is never really seen—they just know there’s a short video ad playing before their intended video. But behind the scenes, a complex system serves as a communicator between the video platform of choice and the ad server. There are several different types of systems, but one of the most efficient and most popular is VAST.
What is this system? How is it evolving? How can you use it to improve your advertising campaign?
Welcome to VAST
VAST is an acronym for Video Ad Serving Template, and it’s an XML structure that helps the video player decide what ad to play next. Basically, it determines three things:
- The video content for the ad that needs to be played.
- Instructions for how the ad should be played.
- Any tracking metrics necessary for the ad’s display.
Sounds pretty simple, right? But the XML structure behind VAST is an impressively complex system, and it keeps getting better.
The Evolution of VAST
VAST was first introduced by IAB, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, as version 1.0 back in the mid-2000s. As video players became more sophisticated and the demands of video advertisers became more complex, the system underwent a series of different iterations leading up to VAST 3.0 back in 2012. For several years, 3.0 was treated as the pinnacle of VAST development, but in November 2015, an even newer version was released—4.0. With the release of 4.0, these older versions have been rendered mostly obsolete—but don’t worry, IAB offers backward compatibility in most cases.
The Benefits of VAST 4.0
VAST 4.0 does everything its predecessors can do, and adds in several important upgrades:
- Improved support for the server. VAST supports both linear and non-linear ads, but not all players are easy to work with. VAST 4.0 introduces new capabilities for server-side support, including “ad stitching,” which is a server-to-server delivery method that allows linear ads to be included in video players with limited capacities.
- Mezzanine file support. There are two big opportunities for modern video players that add complexity to the process: high-definition video and longer forms of content. Both of these require bigger files, and can introduce new obstacles to the average video player. VAST 4.0 offers the full support of raw mezzanine files, which enables it to handle much bigger files and allow them to play at appropriate levels of quality.
- Separation of video files and creative files. Thanks to new video technologies, it has become necessary for developers to separate linear video files from creative or interactive API files. VAST offers compatibility with a number of different files, but this update introduces a new tag that allows you to separately digest these files.
- Files, ready-to-serve. It’s hard to predict exactly how a video player will perform. VAST 4.0 holds documentation on providing three separate ready-to-serve ad video files, at three different levels of quality. This way, you’re guaranteed one type of file will always play (optimized for quality).
- Standardized creative IDs. VAST has always had a creative identifier, but until this update, it’s been somewhat inconsistent. Now, VAST 4.0 offers a universal ID to simplify the process—plus, you can still use your old IDs to keep things consistent.
- The category system. VAST 4.0 introduces a new category system that allows advertisers to easily categorize and keep track of their ads, which is especially useful for AB tests and managers with multiple brand identities.
Better error codes. Error codes are never fun to encounter, but they can provide meaningful troubleshooting information. VAST 4.0 introduces new error codes with more specific direction for publishers.
- The timestamp system. Timestamp macros have now been standardized, making it easier for publishers tracking time.
- Conditional ad declaring. Thanks to VPAID’s conditional system, there are occasions when an ad is “decided” not to be placed, resulting in an associated loss of revenue and inventory. VAST 4.0 offers a better system for the declaration of conditional ads, helping to mitigate these losses and find alternatives.
- Verification and viewability. Originally, VPAID was intended to be used as a means of ad interaction, but recently, it’s been used for metric verification instead. To resolve this discrepancy, VAST 4.0 now offers a space for advertisers to insert verification APIs, serving the same goal in a much more streamlined process. There are also secondary impression elements that allow publishers to measure and analyze viewability of their ads.
Where to Learn More
In this article, we’ve covered the basic history of VAST and why 4.0 is such a major improvement. However, we’ve only scratched the surface of what VAST can do—let alone how to implement it for your campaign. For more information, be sure to check out IAB’s official documentation on the new system.
A New Era of Video Ads
Today’s video advertiser needs to strike a balance between two key areas of development: messaging creativity and powerful technology to back it up. VAST 4.0 offers some of the most sophisticated and streamlined protocols on the technology side, so if you have the creativity, there’s no better time to develop and refine your video advertising campaign.