Silence is golden: preparing for the sound-off mobile ad ecosystem

It’s a tense time for publishers.

On average, desktop traffic is declining in favour of mobile. Using the US as an example, 63% of online traffic comes from smartphones and tablets, which means that desktop display traffic, currently sold via a 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. Recent headlines made by Apple about its Safari browser implementing Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) which will block all 3rd party cookies by default carry massive implications for publishers when their content is viewed through Safari - the default browser for the world’s 700 million iPhone users (not to mention the 1.3b Apple devices worldwide currently in use). That’s a lot of eyeballs being separated from targeted advertising.

If that wasn’t enough, the industry is nervously waiting to see how Google’s Chrome and other browsers will follow suit with their own updates, which will have a major impact on advertisers. One of the big areas of concern is audibility.

Let’s look at HAVOC (Human, Audible, Viewable On Completion). CBA guidelines dictate that autoplay video ads should be served sound-off, which everyone agrees makes for a better consumer experience - so much so, that most of the major browsers are issuing updates that will block publishers if they try to run out steam video ads with sound on (or autoplay in-stream ads).

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 canny advertisers and agencies started to perform workarounds. If the format default was no sound, they started to optimise the creative for silence. This has been going on for a while, and there’s a growing body of insight around the effectiveness of different editing and subtitle techniques (which boils down to keeping things concise and to the point, and avoiding full transcriptions).

This all sounds amazing until you come back to issue that buyers still chase HAVOC KPIs, equating 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 realised 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 realising it: the silent video unit. User acceptance of silent video is likely to be driven by Facebook, where 85% of video content is consumed in silence. We already understand the concept of multi-screening, where people look at their phones by watching television - but we also need to consider multi-listening, where audiences are browsing the web while listening to Spotify or Soundcloud or the latest episode of ‘My Dad Wrote a Porno’. Sound on video in these instances would be disruptive and annoying.

The future is silent?

There’s still more to learn about optimising creative for silence, but this is obviously going to be 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? At Unruly we strongly advise our advertiser partners to make more visually arresting videos for mobile or media buyers to consider viewability metrics over audible measurement.

Viewability is a far more accurate measure of attention and validity than audibility. According to MEC North America in a recent Digiday article, branded videos from its clients average 85-90% 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%, sound off 43%) and ‘good value’ (sound on 30%, sound off 28%).

Unruly is conducting further research on the role of audio in the digital marketing mix. We’re working with the global SVP’s of some of the world’s biggest advertisers, who make up our client council - the U7 - to help them navigate this new soundless world. At the core of this is A/B testing [1] creative that has been optimised for sound off - to see whether viewer response differs from the original pre-roll sound on format in terms of emotion, brand recall, brand favorability, purchase intent, ad recall.

The tests are happening now…..so watch this space.

To further help advertisers ensure their video content is fit-for-purpose in a sound off environment we’ve just updated our UnrulyEQ Edit Suite toolkit to include In-Article Fix. We’ll take a TVC or pre-roll ad and optimise it for the world of outstream. First, we use UnrulyEQ to identify the most emotionally impactful scenes - according to research by Lumen Partners* the optimum length for outstream ads is 20 seconds. Then we update the branding in the creative and ad sound off elements like subtitles or interactivity.

We know that that silent video can be every bit as compelling as sound on - keeping audiences glued to the screen with invitations to engage through interactive, clickable - and most importantly - measurable features.

This couldn’t be more relevant in mobile first markets like ours.

Phil Townend is chief commercial officer, APAC at Unruly.

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