Autoplay Is Here To Stay

Autoplay Videos Are Not Going Away. Here’s How to Fight Them.
Videos that start without your consent are prominent across the web. Our tech columnist explains how the industry got here and what we can do.

By Brian X. Chen

August 1, 2018

The web is in a dark place, as I plan to examine in the next several columns. If you need proof, look no further than autoplay videos, the first example.

You’re probably familiar with this horrendous experience: You are perusing a website, and suddenly an annoying voice or unfamiliar music blasts through your speakers.

You wonder, where is this coming from? You scroll up and down the webpage only to realize that a video is playing without your consent. And the noise polluting your ears is coming from an ad preceding a video you had never clicked to watch.

Autoplay videos are all over the web and inside apps. They are prominent in your Facebook and Instagram feeds. Some major news sites embed them into features and news articles.

Nobody seems to likes autoplay videos — not even people I’ve talked to in the ad industry. The indiscreet videos demand your attention while burning through your mobile data plan and sucking up your batteries. Yet they have become a necessary evil for many media publishers trying to survive in the digital age.

“I think we’ve ended up in a really crappy user experience right now with video advertising,” said Dave Morgan, the chief executive of Simulmedia, which works with advertisers on targeted television ads. “Video has been pushed into every user experience whether or not it fits, because it’s a way to make more money.”

Well, I come here bearing some good news and bad news about these abominations. The bad news is that autoplay videos are here to stay, and that the tools to combat them are far from perfect. The good news is that they are evolving to be less annoying, and that some sites let you turn them off. Here’s what you need to know about how we got here, what you can do and where autoplay videos are heading.

How Did We Get Here?
In digital media, video advertising was always the ultimate goal. Twenty years ago, web publishers dreamed of delivering video ads online: It was the perfect format, already proved by the TV industry to be engaging to audiences and a big revenue generator.

“Sight, sound and motion can make people laugh, make people cry, make them hug somebody,” Mr. Morgan said. “It can make them love a brand. It can make them whistle a brand’s theme song when they’re walking a dog.”

Yet publishers faced technical hurdles, like slow internet connections, that made video ads untenable. Instead, publishers served ads that were static images, which eventually evolved to become graphics with some animations and sound.

Over the last decade, fast wired and wireless connections spread, as did computers and smartphones. Consumers also became acclimated to streaming video services like Netflix and YouTube. Serving an online video became easy. So advertising firms like BrightRoll and Tremor Video, along with tech companies like Facebook, began testing video ads.

Once they got started, there was no turning back. Video ads generated 20 to 50 times more revenue than traditional display ads, and the best way to get money was to make the videos play automatically, Mr. Morgan said. Tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter liked autoplay videos, too, because they were effective at getting people to stick around on their sites, said Taylor Wiegert, a director of user experience strategy for the Martin Agency. Automatically playing videos went from a rarity a decade ago to a prominent online advertising medium today.

When Will This Madness Stop?
As annoying as they may be, autoplay videos are here to stay — largely because the ads generate so much money. But they are thankfully becoming less obnoxious.

Increasingly, advertising firms are shifting toward making autoplay videos with the assumption that people have muted their devices. Mr. Wiegert of the Martin Agency said his firm primarily makes ads with sound off by default. It designs them to communicate a company’s branding and message without requiring sound.

Tech companies, too, are evolving their products to make autoplay videos less of a nuisance. For example, Google says that part of its criteria for allowing autoplay to work in the Chrome browser is for the videos to be muted or have no sound. And on Instagram, automatically played videos are muted by default unless you manually turn on the audio.

“Autoplay with sound on is just going to go extinct,” Mr. Wiegert said. “It’s been deemed as a poor quality experience for users. Even I’ve gotten annoyed when I’ve been on a webpage and all of a sudden I hear sound coming through my speakers.”

Read the full article here.

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