To Skip or Not to Skip: The Question of Pre-Roll Ads

There’s a skippable pre-roll video ad for BMW currently running on YouTube in Canada. As soon as it kicks in the voiceover says, “Does zero to sixty in less time than it takes to skip this ad.”

Skippable ads have gone from being adventures in experimentation to a popular feature in online video campaigns. By providing consumers with the ability to manage their own digital ad experience, brands can create “a better video viewing environment,” and that can translate into brand affinity and a stronger user response. Still, not all advertisers are willing to blindly accept skippable units as the game-changer they’re often made out to be. And with good reason.

Traditional pre-roll ads and skippable units are two separate branches of the same video advertising tree. So far, skippable units have been lauded for putting consumers in control. There’s merit in the argument that Internet users respond more favorably to brands considerate of their desire to choose. The ads are valued, too, for their role in qualifying potential customers. A pre-roll view that could have been skipped but wasn’t represents a successful impression, because this behavior implies some level of interest in the product.

On the other hand, you have a video ad that must be viewed no matter what. All we know for sure about the consumers sitting through these ads is that they want to see the content on the other side. They watch because they have to. But here’s the rub: these kinds of units can be much more cost-effective than the cost-per-view kind. So which one provides the greatest benefit to advertisers overall?

In a way, embracing skippable units requires a fundamental shift in the way marketers think. Just consider the conventional TV ad model. Consumers can’t skip TV spots in real time (at least, not yet) – does that make TV ads less valuable to advertisers than other forms of media? It doesn’t seem to have harmed the business much. According to eMarketer, TV remains the “top ad medium” in the U.S., with an anticipated spend of over $66 billion this year. While digital media could generate over $42 billion, an increase of 22 percent over last year, TV is still far, far ahead.

Online, video is seeing the highest levels of growth among all digital ad units. And yet, eMarketer notes that digital video spending will only amount to one-eighth of television ad spending by 2017.

Both online video and television landscapes are changing, perhaps more notably this year than ever before. Punch in the search phrase “the future of TV” and you’ll find a smorgasbord of speculation that runs the gamut from assertions that Internet TV will put linear TV out of business to claims that YouTube is taking over the real tube by way of Wi-Fi-enabled sets and Google’s Chromecast. What we know for sure is that advertising is part and parcel with video in either form, and that it isn’t going anywhere. Just ask AOL. Earlier this month it spent over $400 million to acquire, an automated video advertising service that functions like an ad exchange. The online programmatic advertising model we know so well is moving offline, and it’s largely happening because brands are finding such success with it on the web.

Which brings us back to online video ads, born of traditional television only to eschew the traditional ways and incorporate new functionality for a digital world. Perhaps the question isn’t which video ad strategy is more effective, but which is likely to stick around. You could argue that, regardless of the economies of scale, skippable ads are right for an online environment and an audience of busy consumers eager to manage their interaction with content. But when compared with the alternative, conventional spots with their forced views are still showing us they have their place.

As we watch and wait for the video market to settle, maybe we should take a cue from BMW and make the most of the ad time we know we have. If we can deliver all of the information we want the consumer to see before an ad even begins, perhaps we needn’t worry so much about the format.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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