As the autoplay saga demonstrates, online risks being the cowboy medium

When it comes to online I’m never entirely sure what to be more surprised about – the strokes that people try to pull, or the fact that they often get away with them.  

But what has been more surprising is the size of the players involved. Often those getting up to shenanigans are the very players you would hope had a vested interest in taking a market lead.

The current furore is over autoplay video, which puts Fairfax in the firing line.

For those who don’t regularly venture to the likes of smh.com.au or theage.com.au, autoplay kicks in when a video starts playing on a page without you telling it to.

To the casual user, it’s mildly annoying – particularly if you’ve sound enabled on your computer and perhaps don’t want your colleagues to know what you’re up to.

Frustratingly, the five second countdown to stop it from autoplaying doesn’t kick in straight away. Which means that you’ve often scrolled past and the player is no longer on the screen before it starts.

If your audio is not switched on, you may never even know it played.

For advertisers, it’s a bigger deal. All of those phantom plays are being paid for.

What was interesting to note at the end of last week was after Mumbrella reported that UM had put its head above the parapet and pulled advertising, just how many other media agencies were willing to claim that they were all over it too.

Yet a quick look at autoplaying ads this morning saw Mazda (OMD), Suncorp (Starcom) and Audi (Mediacom). Of course, these ads may be running free of charge or on some other basis other than CPM.

But they were still autoplaying, so what isn’t overcome is the annoyance factor for consumers.

However, it feels like Fairfax may be about to reverse its position on autoplay.

Certainly it wasn’t keen to come out and justify it. My call from Thursday wasn’t returned, and neither was one from AdNews on Friday. And The Australian’s article today predicting Fairfax was about to ditch the practice also didn’t feature a Fairfax voice. There was also no sign of a statement promised for this morning.

But even if it does ditch autoplay, there’s plenty more sharp practice.

Autorefresh – the widespread habit of refreshing a page every couple of minutes and charging advertisers for each new refresh whether the user is looking or not – is another big issue.

It doesn’t happen in most other markets, which suggests that the excuses for it happening here are indeed just excuses.

Right now, because the big boys all do it, auto refresh is harder to eradicate.

Then there are all those other little tricks where sites could deliver better value to their advertisers if they only wanted to.

For instance, only serve their ads to Australian audiences. But not everyone is automatically geo-targeting either.

And then there is the relatively widespread issue of sites (many of Mumbrella’s competitors included) of not auditing  and taking an imaginative (to put it politely) approach to their traffic claims.

This may be a mature industry, but it faces a real risk that if it doesn’t clean up its act, it will be labelled as the cowboy medium.

Tim Burrowes


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