html5 written on chalkboard
By Martin Betoni Jul 24 2015

The Rise of HTML5 for Display Advertising: What You Need to Know

Recently, the demise of browser support for Flash has made a number of eye-catching headlines. Google announced that its Chrome browser will automatically pause any Flash content starting in September, Mozilla recently removed Flash support from Firefox until Adobe patched a security flaw, and Facebook’s head of security, Alex Stamos, used Twitter to publicly call on Adobe to announce an end-of-life date for Flash altogether. Any way you slice it, the end of Flash as the default motion and video plug-in is nigh, and while that might not mean a lot for the average e-commerce or brand site, the impact on the advertising and publishing landscape is significant. So what does the end of Flash really mean and how will it impact the advertising industry? Let’s find out.

First, it’s important to understand the differences between Flash and HTML5 when it comes to advertising. Flash rose to prominence as a great way to create complex, vector and bitmap-based animations that could be optimally compressed and neatly packaged into a single file at a time when browsers could do little more than display basic text and static images. However, there were two glaring downsides: CPU usage and security.

CPU Usage
It takes a decent amount of computer horsepower to display and move the elements of Flash into the smooth animations we see when it plays. On a desktop, this isn’t a big deal, but on a mobile device it’s much different. The more CPU output required the more energy that device consumes, ultimately affecting both battery life and performance. As our behavior has seismically shifted from consuming web content in the desktop environment onto smartphones and tablets, battery life and speed have become paramount.

Security Concerns
Additionally, as a plug-in, Flash offers malicious individuals a tasty backdoor into your personal system often too good to pass up. This was most recently made obvious through the Hacking Team’s internal files and correspondence leak. Unfortunately, this is only the latest such case, and the frequency of these exposures has continued to increase.

About HTML 5
By contrast, HTML5 is simply the latest iteration of HTML, the internet language that browsers translate to display web pages. Included with this fifth version are a new series of tags that allow web designers and developers to create the types of animation and video that traditionally required plug-ins like Flash directly in the code of the page itself. By eliminating the need for a plug-in, the security issues plug-ins present are excised and the CPU usage required to display plug-in type content also decreases dramatically. What’s more, a single ad developed using HTML5 can be displayed on desktops, smartphones and tablets, eliminating the need to build multiple versions of the same execution. While this may seem like a silver bullet solution for the ‘new’ multi-screen internet as a whole, there are a number of advertising-specific challenges the transition to HTML5 presents.

When Flash SWFs rose to prominence as the default display advertising animation format, one of the benefits was that a SWF was a single file, just like the GIF and JPG display ads that preceded it. That allowed SWFs to fit nicely into the existing systems that powered advertising: ad servers, web sites and technology providers. On the other hand, ads developed using HTML5 are essentially miniature web sites, with all of the associated code and image files a web site requires to appear correctly. As such, HTML5 ads are a collection of files, not a single file. While there are newer advertising technology providers whose systems were built for HTML5 from the ground up, most of the legacy companies in our industry need to revamp or expand their platforms to accommodate the new format. This takes time, and, of course, money. Additionally, many of the standard tracking and reporting features used with Flash ads aren’t apples to apples with HTML5 ads, and those need updating and tweaking as well.

For designers and developers who are used to working in Flash, creating HTML5 advertising is a relatively newer task – one that requires a specialized set of skills and toolbox. Even if you’re familiar with web development overall, HTML5 still presents unique challenges for creating familiar motion and elements. HTML is, and always has been, an open source development language, not a software tool with a finite feature set like Flash. With each version, it continues to evolve and will always offer multiple ways to accomplish the same goal. Designers continue to explore the best execution methods to meet the needs and requirements of display advertising, and are learning more each day. For now, HTML often takes more effort and, in many cases, more time than Flash to achieve a similar output.

The Road Ahead
Far and above, the largest hurdle facing the industry right now is the lack of any standardization for HTML5 advertising. None of the existing specs specific to Flash or static GIFs and JPGs are applicable to HTML5 ads, since they are a collection of smaller files, not a single file. Although the individual image files within an HTML5 ad may be insignificant, as a whole the entire package tends to be much larger than single-file ads. File size specs for display ads were developed to preserve the user experience on a publisher’s site, so that site visitors weren’t waiting for an ad to load instead of the content they came for. With HTML5 ads, the individual elements load just like the rest of the web site, one at a time after the other and then subsequently when called for. In that scenario, overall size becomes less important than the size of the each unique element. The IAB is currently developing size and functionality specs for HTML5 ads and accepting input from the industry on just what those should be. Until that’s complete, publishers, agencies and technology providers are all doing their best to determine what they feel works best. As expected, this confusion is adding complexity and time to the entire advertising life cycle.

At Centro, we believe the transition to HTML5 as the default format for display advertising is ultimately a very good thing. We share the same security and performance concerns as our technology peers, and believe that HTML offers the best experience for our advertising audience. We’ve been updating our internal processes, educating team members and evolving our platform for the better part of a year in anticipation of this transition. We run more HTML5 campaigns every day, and expand our capabilities in doing so. We will continue to educate our customers and contribute to helping the industry evolve. As always, let us know if you have further questions about this advancement or anything else related to digital. We’re happy to help!