Video Ads: Are They Listening?

Right this very second, is your computer’s sound turned on, or is it muted? If it is on, are you headphones plugged in? Are you wearing them?

Pop-up ads, once the bane of online advertising, have all but disappeared, thank goodness. Once the scourge of the Web, they’re now pretty much relegated to the type of site you’d probably be unwilling to confess you visit in the first place. Complaints and user dissatisfaction, therefore, are way, way down.

Which isn’t to say users aren’t still plenty frustrated by online advertising. What’s irking them now are video ads, one of the fastest-growing Internet advertising forms since the banner.

Yesterday, a friend e-mailed me a link to an article on an ABC affiliate site. “Don’t stay here too long…. There is an annoying sound pop-up that, uh, pops up annoyingly,” the accompanying message warned.

It wasn’t what you and I would call a pop-up (define). Rather, it was a Rovion ad that appeared — and promptly began to talk — about 15 seconds after I landed on the page. Frankly, I don’t know what it was for or what it said. I belong to the leave-the-headphones-permanently-plugged-in camp at work. They go on my head only when I need to hear something (Skype, for example). At home, audio is more or less permanently muted unless I’m watching a film or listening to iTunes.

Therein lies an essential difference between online video and pop-ups. For all the hoopla about broadband video measurement standards and what constitutes a video impression (to say nothing of the oh-so-elusive engagement metric), I’m willing to bet a significant portion of video advertising amounts to something less than white noise.

No, I can’t find any studies or stats on how many users leave their audio on. But think about it. To zap pop-ups, users had to download and install software, tweak browser prefs, or add browser extensions. Killing online video advertising is as easy as — if not easier than — using TiVo to zap a TV spot.

The Right Place at the Right Time

Online video ads almost always have an audio component. Is anyone listening?

Dayparting could be a large determinant. We’re all aware Internet primetime is during the day, when office workers are rooted to their desks and broadband connections. Given most office workers are in cubicles these days, not only is software-initiated audio rude, it probably also isn’t the greatest idea (unless you’re looking for the sort of negative publicity “The New York Times” and Pfizer recently endured).

Actually, the offending ad in question wasn’t software-initiated… exactly. It required a mouseover. Unfortunately, the concept of user-initiated is becoming ever murkier. Be honest. Unintentionally mousing over something too big to avoid — or flagged as an audio trigger — is a launch pad for mayhem. C’mon. It doesn’t really count as user-initiated, does it?

Environment counts. Do users really expect an all-singing, all-dancing experience when they visit “The New England Journal of Medicine”? I’m no physician, but I doubt it. Publishers who don’t set standards risk serious brand damage. Advertisers risk engendering hostility rather than generating business. On the other hand, consumers expect and welcome audible conversations from entertainment and video sites.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Video ads don’t just occupy screen real estate, they take up a user’s valuable time. Yet increasingly, advertisers and publishers are dispensing with frequency caps (or they’re radically lowering their standards).

On Moviefone last week, it was all “Pirates of the Caribbean” all the time, according to an exasperated colleague who was searching for something else across the site. At least that abated after the opening weekend. Ad:tech San Francisco tortured its visitors with a walking, talking greeting from my good friend Susan Bratton, the conference’s chairwoman emeritus. It appeared each and every visit — and when you’re attending a conference, you’re likely to visit the site multiple times. Rovion CEO Len Ostroff, whose company created the video, said it’s company policy to always recommend frequency caps. But there’s nothing they can do when they’re removed. (To ad:tech’s credit, the new site video appeared only once.)

Publishers always say they impose frequency caps, but they’re also committed to displaying a predetermined number of impressions. When they don’t, makegoods are in order. The stakes are higher when premium video inventory enters into the equation.

Pre-Roll That Just Keeps Rolling

AccuStream released a study yesterday that finds pre-roll video inventory has grown an average 105.2 percent annually for the past five years. That’s some serious expansion, but it’s also a source of serious transgressions, not the least of which is ad rotation.

A significant constituency of the new sites embracing pre-roll ads are TV networks with a ton of content to make available via broadband. The bad news is many haven’t found a corresponding ton of advertisers to sponsor that content. It’s hardly unusual to watch clip after network clip on a site and be forced to endure the same :15 or :20 spot again and again and again. These same television properties would never dare to populate an on-air ad block with only one ad, repeated four or five times. So why do they do it on their Web sites?

Is is really necessary to once again call out the standards and practices committees to create guidelines for online video advertising? Wouldn’t it instead be better for everyone if advertisers and publisher exercised a little common sense? And wouldn’t that be preferable to having frustrated users turn the Web into the online equivalent of a DVR?

Meet Rebecca at the ClickZ Specifics: Online Video Advertising seminar on March 19 at the San Francisco Marriott in California.

Rebecca is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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