• By keeping more people at home, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven the growth of connected TV (CTV) sets and over-the-top (OTT) streaming services, and helped make them a permanent part of the viewing habits once dominated by broadcast and cable TV.

    In 2020, according to market-research firms MoffettNathanson LLC and HarrisX, the largest streaming services increased their combined subscriber base by more than 50% over the previous year.

    But, like any frontier, there are many territories, and that means advertisers have to play by many rules.

    “It is literally the Wild West right now,” ENGINE Media Exchange Senior Product Director Auric Adames said, “with CTV platforms describing the same piece of content differently and inconsistently, as CTV has emerged,” he added, “ensuring the ad community is speaking the same language is imperative.” 

    The many options for how to get to each impression could prove problematic for advertisers in the future, if not now, according to LiveRamp’s Christine Grammier, Head of Buy Side TV. 

    “Media buyers have to be in a test-and-learn mode. It is very hard to forecast what is overlapping inventory versus unique ahead of spending the dollars,” she said. “Absent cross-screen measurement of how impressions are delivered to households, CTV becomes a check-box, which isn’t where it should be in a time where every advertising dollar needs to stretch farther and be tied to a business outcome.”

    A single language

    To create a single language for advertisers, the IAB Tech Lab has released a series of proposals of ad standards for internet-delivered TV.

    “A lot of connected TV ads are siloed [by services and platforms],” said IAB Tech Lab Senior Director of Product, Amit Shetty, adding that “we’re addressing it by enabling [easier ways to run] programmatic ads.”

    CTV covers devices that connect to a TV and deliver streaming services, such as Roku or Apple TV, as well as internet-connected TV sets themselves. OTT describes the streaming services themselves. While Netflix and Amazon Prime are subscriber-based, other services—like Hulu or Sony’s Crackle—are ad-based or have ad-supported tiers.   

    Since OTT is delivered to any connected device—such as smartphones, tablets, and computers—it covers a broader footprint than CTV, but IAB Tech Lab is concerned primarily with large screens in traditional settings.

    Proposed standards

    The IAB Tech Lab’s CTV standards proposals cover:

    These proposed standards, defined by the IAB Tech Lab’s working groups, go through a public commenting period to allow for feedback from nonmembers, then get published.

    Additionally, IAB Tech Lab has released ads.txt for CTV, expanding its publisher verification of authorized sellers for a given ad inventory. Shetty said his organization is working on a software development kit (SDK) for CTV ad measurement. The SDK will be certified through a tech lab compliance program, such as the one that led to the wide adoption of the Lab’s mobile open measurement SDK.

    Shetty said the proposed standards relate to various aspects of video ad delivery, and were issued in a series so they can be readily connected to existing standards on other platforms, such as brand safety or VAST.

    Taxonomy, naming, and consent

    One area in particular where a single language could help advertisers, Shetty said, is a standardization of taxonomy for describing and categorizing content. Such consistency could boost CTV ad spend because advertisers would have reliable information across platforms and services about where their ads will appear. 

    Jay Prasad, Chief Strategy Officer at LiveRamp TV, pointed to another essential labeling issue: the consistent naming of targeted segments. 

    “It’s important to understand who’s an automobile intender,” he said, referring to users who intend to buy a car. “But everything is named differently [across platforms and services.] Aligning on naming conventions would make it a lot easier for brands to experiment with CTV and increase their investments.”

    And there’s also the non-standardized factor of consent.

    With the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), consumer consent for—or opting out of—the use of behavioral and other data has become a key consideration for all kinds of targeted ads. 

    But most CTV devices still only offer those choices when the device or service is first set up, and do not provide easy ways to modify choices or make them more granular. At some point, this will likely have to change to fit the new privacy standards if ad targeting on CTV will thrive.

    Scale vs. urgency

    Of course, just because the need is there doesn’t make the standardization any easier.

    “The IAB’s ambition to bring some standardization to advertising within CTV environments is laudable,” VDX.tv VP of Product Management Tim Sleath said, “but the scale of the task cannot be overstated.” His company is a global ad tech firm focused on connected TVs and personal devices.

    Compared to sites and apps, he pointed out, CTV devices “come in a wide array of implementations, resulting in fragmented markets which also differ by country.” Additionally, connected TVs are often not designed for providing ad-related data.

    “Standards are what helps the industry scale,” IAB Tech Lab’s Shetty added. “Without standards, every company would have to work on proprietary integrations, [and] the problems the standards are meant to address will likely be around longer.”

    As a rough rule of thumb, he said, “we try to set goals around getting at least the top five to ten entities to adopt a spec in the first year, and then go for wider adoption past that.”

    “Some specs, like ads.txt, take off much faster because they solve for an acute problem, [such as] transparency to reduce ad fraud in this case, and also are incentivized by the buy side requiring them. Others, like VAST4, take longer because the urgency around it is only for a few entities, and the rest of the ecosystem would wait for additional benefits to become possible.”

    But the standardization will be worth it for advertisers, says LiveRamp TV’s Prasad.

    “CTV is and will be the largest growth area for advertising overall,” he said, pointing to a 2020 drop of 20+% for radio, outdoor, and other offline media, and a 17% drop for linear TV. “This means it’s not just an add-on to a plan or up-front strategy, [but] it’s core, and needs additional data and measurement capabilities to quickly catch up to the demand for this inventory.”

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