Ready for Online TV Commercials?

A while back, I wrote about a growing trend, one that just got a major publicity boost from a new player in the field. That trend is incorporating video into online advertising, and the company offering the high-profile new format is none other than Unicast.

A rich media pioneer (the company created the Superstitial and subsequent full-screen Superstitial), Unicast has made quite an “impression” on media buyers in recent years. The company’s latest product is even more exciting than its past offerings.

Get ready for online TV commercials.

Unicast’s Video Commercial is a slick, full-screen format that delivers broadband video footage at 30 frames per second, just like TV. The ads are virtually indistinguishable from offline versions. Before, video ads were synonymous with broken feeds and image delays. Now, Video Commercials run smoothly, regardless of Internet connection speed.

How did a rich media supplier such as Unicast manage to create a format so likely to grab consumer attention? By collaborating with the mother of all software companies. A dialogue was initiated with Microsoft over a year ago. It resulted in the development of a video format that employs Windows Media Player. The Video Commercial was introduced with a paid beta launch last week. The full launch is scheduled for March 1.

Running eight campaigns for six advertisers on 15 sites that will deliver 100 million impressions over the course of six weeks, Unicast senior VP Allie Savarino says it feels like the company is “kind of beyond the testing phase.” The format has already attracted advertisers, including AT&T, Honda, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Vonage, and Warner Brothers. Ads can be viewed on About.com, CBS.com, FOXSports.com, iVillage, and, of course, MSN.

Whenever a new advertising technology is introduced online, there’s apprehension over how users will react. The last thing media buyers want is to associate their clients with a format that frustrates or offends the target market.

Meanwhile, in their efforts to recruit tentative buyers, it’s not uncommon for technology vendors to promise user approval is widespread as far as the new format is concerned. They must then retract those vows when consumer backlash ensues.

In this case, even impartial industry analysts speculate consumers will appreciate the technology. Unicast’s ads are of higher quality than anything they’ve been exposed to in the past.

The format boasts a number of features specifically designed with consumer satisfaction in mind. Though invasive and occupying the entire screen, Video Commercials don’t slow load times as some formats do. Instead, they load while visitors browse page content, a result of “patented pre-cached technology.”

To ensure consumers have the option to bypass ads, Unicast took a “two-pronged approach to protecting consumer interests.” In addition to including the standard “x” close button in the corner of the ad window, the company also built in user controls, including stop and mute buttons. Finally, most publishers testing the format cap Video Commercial delivery at one per user, per day, to prevent audiences from feeling bombarded.

Despite Unicast’s efforts to appease, some publishers express concern ad length could prove a handicap. Consumers are accustomed to 30-second ads on TV. Online, they can distract from browsing, search, and work. Unicast has tracked consumer response, including ad display time. Feedback it’s received is consistent with what it gets in regard to its full-screen Superstitials. Savarino says users allow the ads to completely run 66 percent of the time.

One major Video Commercial benefit, from both the media buyer’s and the publisher’s points of view, is enticing offline advertisers to invest online. Unicast’s online video ads are 30-second spots, the same length as a standard TV ad unit. Traditional advertisers can leverage existing offline materials and simply transfer the creative online. Formats such as the Superstitial require TV footage first be converted to Flash. Video Commercials are “pure video,” so offline quality isn’t compromised. Video commercials provide TV advertisers with classic online advantages, including access to tracking and measurement tools and the ability to promote interactivity, capture data, and distribute coupons.

Savarino says the company’s expectations for the Video Commercial “are less about format and more about economic impact on the industry. We believe it’s a catalyst to bring ad dollars to the Internet,” she says.

It’s probably safe to say Internet marketers hope she’s right.

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