The Highs and Lows of Advertising in Online TV

In theory, video ads that appear within full TV episodes online should be an unstoppable force in digital advertising. They provide brands with a captive, focused audience for their video creative, but more than that they’re more effective than TV ads alone.

In its most recent Advertising Fact Sheet, Nielsen reported increases in general ad recall, brand recall, message recall, and ad likability for TV plus premium online video versus TV alone. In other words, those consumers who saw a commercial spot embedded in a TV program online demonstrated a more favorable response to that ad than those who saw the same ad on TV alone.

Source: Nielsen Advertising Fact Sheet 2010

For those countless advertisers running cross-media campaigns, this is big news. There are plenty of opportunities to advertise in this way online, thanks to video players from major television networks and premium ad-supported streaming video sites. And as of last year, there are also more ad placements for the taking.

In 2010, the CW Network announced plans to double the number of ads consumers will see while watching its programs online. ABC did the same with its iPad app and later its Web-based player, and both Fox and NBC followed suit with an increased number of ads per online program moving forward. In general, there seems to be a migration toward online TV advertising that is more closely aligned with traditional TV ad volume.

What do consumers think about all of this? In November, one study conducted by Turner Broadcasting revealed that consumers are more than willing to watch ads in exchange for programming – more, in fact, than you might expect. The study offered three groups of consumers’ programming embedded with different amounts of advertising – anywhere from one minute per episode to 20 minutes – and concluded that viewers watched about the same amount of an episode regardless of how much advertising was contained therein.

Unfortunately, most players aren’t without their share of flaws. Many are set up to require the viewer to sit through several ads over the course of a program and prevent them from skipping – even if there is a glitch in the player or the viewer wishes to rewind and watch a segment again. There’s an inherent usability issue with this approach that can make for a highly frustrating user experience.

Additionally, many brands still haven’t grasped the importance of using multiple messages in a single video player sponsorship buy. On a player like that offered by, a user will routinely be exposed to the same ad three times during a 21-minute program – and potentially even more if they have a problem with their connection and must backtrack to avoid missing a portion of the show. There is something to be said for the value of repetition, but this approach puts all of your eggs in one basket. Is it worth the risk of annoying the user with an ad that may not be relevant or up to snuff?


Placing video ads within full-length TV shows online has its merits. Video viewing is eternally on the rise and premium programming is one area that stands to benefit from this shift in media consumption behavior. If, however, you use this approach, it would be prudent to keep two things in mind.

  1. Offer variety. This kind of sponsorship isn’t about contextual or behavioral targeting, so there’s no guarantee your audience is in the market for, say, a new car. Forcing a viewer to sit through the same car ad over and over doesn’t make much sense. Ask your rep if you can include several creative spots to make the viewing experience more tolerable.
  2. Offer options. There are an increasing number of publishers and properties out there – Hulu, AOL, and Yahoo among them – offering the ability to feature several ads in order to let the consumer decide which is most relevant and interesting to them. If this feature is available, jump on it. By inviting the viewer to take an active role in the advertising process, you are creating a form of self-qualification that stands to result in a more effective campaign.

Advertising in online television isn’t perfect. Unless, perhaps, the brand advertiser makes it that way.

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