How to survive and thrive through the Flashpocalypse

The end is here! …At least with regard to the widespread use of Flash in digital advertising. Unlike some apocalyptic predictions of 'the end', this one is actually real and has an agreed-upon schedule for the death of Flash. But unlike most predictions of widespread doom, the 'Flashpocalypse' actually offers some major upsides for companies that have historically used Flash to drive their digital advertising campaigns.

In this piece, I’ll cover the demise of Flash and a discussion of the differences between Flash and HTML5, plus a forward-looking roadmap to help you understand key issues for navigating the journey beyond Flash to using richer HTML5 creative content. It’s important to understand this shift now, as major industry players like Google have already announced that they will no longer support Flash-based ads.

First let’s start with a little background. Flash-based technology became the primary method for authoring and displaying dynamic content during the initial, 'desktop era' of the web. Web browsers cannot render Flash media themselves, instead it is rendered in the Adobe Flash Player — a browser plug-in.

While the Flash model worked well in the desktop era when browsers supported the Flash Player, the technology lacked the flexibility, security, and responsive play-anywhere performance required in the mobile era. As a result, Flash has now lost the industry-acceptance and ubiquity that is core to the survival of any standard.

Flash is a static image. It lacks interactivity, prohibits engagement and will leave you in the dust if you continue to use it as a part of digital campaigns. Think of it this way: if you were trying to get a customer to your site to purchase an item – would you send them an image of your website and make them navigate there themselves? Or do you think a beautifully rendered image, logo with a direct link to the product would do that? That’s pretty much the difference between Flash and HTML5.

Some pin Flash’s demise to Apple’s decision not to support it on the first iPhone or any subsequent iOS devices. That key inflection point was followed by the unprecedented eruption of mobile devices, display sizes, operating systems, new streaming methods, and the proliferation of diverse mobile-optimised and cross-screen content. And even on back the desktop, ongoing concerns with Flash security vulnerabilities continued to erode support. The writing was on the wall.

With the Flash plug-in no longer the go-to client-side standard in this rapidly evolving mobile-first world, Flash-based content just can’t reach the fastest growing segment of the market. For companies, this means that most of their audience is migrating to mobile devices that are beyond the reach of outdated, non-mobile Flash advertising. Why? Because Flash can’t offer the rich, dynamic, and personalised content that HTML5 can offer perfectly across every screen.

What happened to Flash?

The industry-wide calls for discontinuing the use of Flash began gaining momentum in July 2015 when Facebook’s chief security officer called for setting an end-of-life date and other key players agreed that Flash’s usefulness was coming to a close. Since then, Amazon and other major ad serving networks have banned Flash ads.

Google has said that it will stop accepting newly uploaded advertisements made with Flash as of June 2016; legacy Flash ads are to be banned by the beginning of 2017. Google is instead encouraging advertisers to use HTML5 across its AdWords, Google Display Network, and DoubleClick digital marketing platforms. According to Google, this change will 'enhance the browsing experience for more people on more devices', and they are correct.

However, this transition will not be painless. Flash-based ads have been ubiquitous across the web for the better part of two decades. According to AdvertisingAge, more than 100 million ads were served using Flash in the 12 months ending June 2015. But with the major ad servers and networks now hitting the brakes hard, Flash usage will plummet to nearly zero in less than a year’s time. And companies that don’t get off the Flash bandwagon – will find themselves with low performing digital ad campaigns.

What does this mean for developers?

Acceptance is the first step; Flash is obsolete and HTML5 is now the standard. The impacts of transitioning away from Flash and using HTML5 can generally be grouped into 1) advantages and 2) challenges.

As is already being proven out by the large amount of ad content that has been created using HTML5, the major advantages include:

Viewable across every display

Because HTML5 preserves the integrity of all images and text assets, rather than bundling them for output in a proprietary format that requires a browser plug-in to render, HTML5 allows the same ad file to be correctly displayed on virtually any screen (desktops, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, streaming devices, virtual reality headsets, etc.).

Improved style fidelity

Because HTML5 can embed native fonts within the ad file itself, companies have better control over the results and can be sure their chosen typeface looks correct, regardless of whether the creative work is done in-house or outsourced across multiple creative teams.

Smarter and more dynamic ad content

HTML5 also opens the door for enhanced personalisation of the ad content, such as geolocation, live pricing, multi-lingual adaptation, sequencing, A/B testing, dynamic creative optimisation, etc. This means more consumer engagement with content because it’s tailored specifically to preferences.

Improved ROI and amortisation of creative investments

Instead of paying for multiple sub-projects to get various iterations of the same basic ad campaign to run in different display environments, creating ads in native HTML5 enables companies to get more out of their primary creative investments and avoid the cost of iterative secondary adaptations.

Expanded ability to reach mobile audiences

Because HTML5 works on mobile devices, companies and brands are able to reach a much wider audience where the majority of ad impressions are now occurring. According to Sizmek’s 2015 Mobile Index: 'Click-through rates on standard, static banners on mobile devices are as low as .28%. HTML5 ads, however, benefit from a range of interactivity options: expandable sizes, video content, slideshows, and so on. Plus, HTML5 ads outperformed their defaulting Flash cousins by 400%.'

In order to achieve the inherent advantages of transitioning to HTML5, you must be aware of and successfully address these key challenges:

Understand that workflows must change

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing you and your agency is the learning curve to optimise HMTL5 creative workflows. HTML5 is a proven and mature technology with a broad user community and deep support. However, many agencies have been riding the familiar Flash platform to the very end its lifespan instead of investing in the transition to use HTML5.

Avoid expensive Text-As-Image workarounds

For some ad builders, the short-term workaround for getting text into their HTML5 ads post-Flash has been rasterising text into image files (Text-As-Images). But static images require designers to build many versions of the same text image for every possible ad placement size multiplied by all of the possible screen resolutions (2-3x). This huge number of image files created just for displaying text quickly becomes untenable, not to mention time-consuming and expensive. Some production shops don’t actually perform all the extra work it would take to create and maintain all those images files resulting in low fidelity type rendering or unnecessarily large file weights that negatively impact the delivery and performance of ads when they are served.

Leverage existing font IP investments into HTML5 workflow

Most companies already understand the importance of establishing and controlling their text styles and have made appropriate investments in font IP to assure brand consistency and coherence. With Flash, the control over font style is frozen early in the process. However, with HTML5 the font information is dynamic all the way until it reaches the consumer – creating more effective interaction and better brand consistency. But it also means that companies need to exercise better control over font IP in their HTML5 workflows.

In these new workflows, it’s important to assure that creative teams aren’t inadvertently taking shortcuts that might compromise an ad’s visual integrity, delivery, performance, or font licensing compliance. It’s also important for companies to avoid paying the agency for font IP that has already been licensed. In most cases, simply adding digital ad licensing rights to their existing font IP license is the best way for companies to both minimise costs and empower their extended creative teams with the correct font IP needed to deliver style integrity throughout the workflow and on all devices.

Manage file weights and minimise complexity

Because HTML5 brings together a richer set of assets for rendering dynamic content across more devices, its file sizes can be larger than Flash’s output files were. Ad networks are aware of this factor and are adjusting their file size limits to accommodate HTML5. However, companies and creative teams need to be educated in various techniques to keep file sizes small and optimise performance.

From the perspective of implementing text in HTML5 ads, one critical technique is to 'subset' the font files used by the ad. Subsetting minimises font file weight. Since Flash would do this more or less automatically many ad builders who are newer to HTML5 simply don’t know about font subsetting or how to best do it. Modern digital font licensing technology provides the right foundation for complete creative control along with the ability to subset font files. Emerging HTML5 authoring tools also support automatic font subsetting giving ad designers free reign to create while assuring optimal file weight and performance of the final HTML5 output.

The 'Flashpocalypse' is upon us and the world of digital advertising will unquestionably survive. But in this transition, the main issue for companies and their extended creative teams to contend with is how quickly and effectively they can embrace HTML5 to move beyond the triage phase and start benefitting from the full set of capabilities this powerful new medium affords.

Some key questions: Are you ready for the conversion to HTML5? If not, it’s important to talk to your digital advertising and branding agencies now. Your competitors are likely already out there building new personalised, dynamic, and responsive ads – you don’t want to be left behind.

Theo Skye

Image Credit:360b / Shutterstock