A ‘Tail’ of Two Videos

Just a couple of months ago, I wrote about the temptation for advertisers to look toward online video upfronts, consisting mainly of pre-roll video. Though that’s still an option for many advertisers (particularly those with significant online budgets), there’s something else brewing, and it has been for quite some time. This is where the long-tail concept kicks in.

Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail, which states low-demand products can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters if the distribution channel is large enough, can aptly be applied to video content, too. Online communities and social networks (e.g., MySpace.com, Facebook, TagWorld, etc.) and sites that facilitate creation and sharing of user-generated content (e.g., YouTube, Break.com, JumpCut, Revver, etc.) have created the largest proliferation of amateur auteurs the media industry has ever seen.

Inevitably, as more video content is created and more people spend more time with this content, advertisers will seek ways to reach those people. After all, advertisers have been advertising in front of, within, between, and after TV programming for over 50 years. It should be as simple as following that same model within another medium, right?

Not so fast.

Consumers have built up a tolerance for advertising. We accept exposure to advertising as the price we pay for professionally produced, quality entertainment, be it TV programming, sporting events, free weekly newspapers, or terrestrial radio. So why the aversion to inserting video advertising in front of amateur-produced content online?

The long tail of content doesn’t purport to be the long, quality tail of content. For every “Chad Vader,” there are about 10,000 “when myspace is down” videos. The explosion of user-generated content online is mostly because it’s easy for just about anyone to get it there. If consumers are going to spend time exploring all that content, commercials will probably just impede the joy of discovery and turn it into the agony of frustration. Sitting through a :15 or :30 spot before 30 seconds or even 2 minutes of content is enough to frustrate even the most casual of online video viewers.

Are we to abandon the pre-roll model that works (or at least sells) for the CNN.coms and MTV.coms of the world? We should, at least for the content that contributes to the long tail. But it doesn’t mean we should ignore it. After all, WWYTD (what would YouTube do)?

It will be necessary for numerous business models to exist and thrive, to take advantage of the vast trove of content available, and extract some form of advertising revenue from them. The amount of time spent viewing them has been, and will continue to be, too great to ignore.

The greatest new technologies don’t automatically make the best ad platforms. However, any property, utility, or community that millions of people interact with deserves a solution that benefits everyone: the advertiser by providing a platform for delivering a message, the property by generating revenue, and the audience by keeping it free.

There are no universal solutions, but there are factors advertisers and publishers should consider that may raise the tolerance threshold for advertising where it isn’t welcome:

  • Use the utility. Recognize the environment you’re advertising in is a moving medium. However, it’s not necessary to rely on the moving medium itself to deliver the message. By integrating a brand within functional aspects, favorable brand association can be developed. Think about that umbrella given to you by that agency or publisher as swag this year. It provides great utility, and you’ll never forget who gave it to you.
  • The beginning isn’t the end. Just because audiences don’t want an advertiser’s pre-roll ad to impede or corrupt their experience doesn’t mean the opportunity is lost. Discovery begins where the previous experience leaves off. Look at the video experience as a launch pad for steering audiences elsewhere.
  • Be funny and share. If advertising is going to be introduced into the world of user-generated content, than it better be appealing. Make sure ad content has the potential to be as entertaining as (if not more so than) the content it will live around.
  • Cap ads. One reason the long tail of video content is so long is because audiences tend to consume more than one video during an average session. If someone sticks around long enough to watch five videos, the last thing she wants to see is the same commercial five times. It may work when you’re 12 feet away from the TV, but not when you’re 12 inches away from a computer screen. Then, it’s just plain obnoxious. Make sure frequency caps are implemented to stave off the potential to be labeled as a nuisance.

Advertisers must constantly innovate beyond the obvious, drawing inspiration from what audiences find useful and entertaining and making the ad message one that audiences not only tolerate but also accept because it adds to their experience. Sometimes the pressure to find the quick paths to revenue, or even just buy online video, results in solutions at the consumer’s expense. If agencies, advertisers, publishers, and technologists work together to find the right solutions, we’ll finally be able to grab hold of that long tail without irritating the audience wagging it.

Meet Ian at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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