Video Commercials: Online Advertising’s Superhero?

Unicast certainly brought back the buzz surrounding online video advertising. And with good reason. The new Video Commercial format is nothing short of remarkable. It’s a full 30-second TV spot, nearly full screen, 30 frames per second, with no buffering or hiccups. It practically eliminates streaming video’s frustrations. And, it’s all downloaded in the background so as not to disturb the user experience until the ad is ready to play. It’s truly a thing of beauty.

Both the industry and the press have responded favorably. There’s been a ton of positive buzz. But read a few articles, and you may think it’s the second coming. Here’s how one might read:

Video will save the day. It will usher in a new era in online advertising. It will finally allow big-time brand advertisers to run their expensive TV spots online, leveraging the investment and finally bringing online the emotional connection necessary to brand.

That’s what they’re saying, anyway.

I’m not putting Unicast’s new product down. On the contrary, I think it’s incredible, and Unicast is taking the right steps to address my usual concerns with video advertising online. The format’s revolutionary and has the potential, when used correctly, to be a tremendously powerful way to connect with consumers. But like the old superhero comics used to say: With great power comes great responsibility.

As agencies and advertisers, we’ve been given amazing tools in Unicast’s new product and in other rich media technologies. We must learn to use them effectively and responsibly. It’s particularly challenging when the easiest thing to do is to convert a TV spot into a video commercial.

I’ve written before on this topic, and my views haven’t changed. The Web is not TV. An inherent difference exists between a consumer online and a consumer watching TV. One’s a user, the other’s a viewer. Mindset and media consumption habits are significantly different.

Online is active, TV is passive, although increasingly more people go online to catch up on news via streaming video. Though more passive than most online activities, the user still has control over the environment. She could click away to different video segments, close the window entirely, or, in some cases, interact in other meaningful ways.

Most users anecdotally report they are sometimes entertained by TV commercials. But they will not want to see commercials online unless we do it right. What happened when TiVo and other DVRs gave viewers the option to skip TV ads? Consumers ate it up. Reports peg the percentage who skip commercials at different levels. But by and large, give people the option and they’re gonna skip at least some ads. TV executives have steadily increased the amount of commercial time in any given hour to the point where it’s really bugging viewers.

Similarly, online users hate the intrusion of pop-up advertising. Sure, one reason may that pop-ups are rampant. They’re everywhere. Typically, the same advertisers (and ads) are seen repeatedly.

Running a fat full-motion video spot in the main browser window is more intrusive still. It’s absolutely critical this be done right, so we don’t over-intrude on our audience.

How do we use the power responsibly? Unicast is taking the right steps. The publishers participating in the beta test are approaching it wisely as well. Most critical is enabling users to skip the ads completely. Second, controlling frequency is important. Both are happening. Most publishers say their cap is once per day per person, which is appropriate. Thirty-seconds might prove to be too long; 10 to 15 seconds seems better, but we’ll see how the beta test goes.

Finally, none of the demos I’ve seen effectively employ interactivity, although the product does support it. You can wrap the video window with whatever you want. It would be a terrible shame if the industry were to move significantly in the direction of passive video advertising. We’d be missing a huge opportunity. John Steel wrote, “The best and most effective advertising is that which sets out to involve consumers.” (“Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning“)

Get your target to do more than just watch your ad. Get them to use it. Give them something in return. It’s much more likely they’ll hear, understand, believe, and remember your message.

The Internet is an interactive medium. We have the opportunity to create incredibly powerful communication vehicles that don’t just talk to our audience but can involve them. It’s about the interactive experience, and that experience can make a connection as few TV ads ever could. The tools are out there. It’s up to us to learn to use them wisely.

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