Video, Interrupted

There’s been a lot of talk lately about pre-roll advertising, and not much of it very positive.

Poll and study results are popping up in blogs and on Web sites, talking of consumers’ intolerance for pre-roll ads. Take this one for example:

Schaffer Graph

Data and sentiment suggest short pre-roll ads appearing before YouTube videos (or any videos, for that matter) aren’t the answer in this on-demand, consumer-centric world we’ve created (or at least contribute to).

But is it quite that simple?

When the ubiquitous Joseph Jaffe recently responded “zero” to a reporter’s question about the optimal length of a pre-roll ad, my knee-jerk consumer reaction was “Right on!” But in a world where advertising has crept into every aspect of our lives (outdoor, in the subway, on our coffee cups, on our pizza boxes), why does pre-roll advertising bother us so much?

The obvious answer is it’s interruptive. The less obvious answer is it’s often completely untargeted and irrelevant. Implementing tactics that creatively address these two issues just may save pre-roll.

Pre-roll’s interruptive nature is what makes it so attractive to marketers. When you encounter it, it’s completely unavoidable, which is precisely what makes it so unattractive to consumers. What, if anything, can we learn from consumers’ usage of DVRs, ad-skipping, and fragmented media use? How can we evolve pre-roll video advertising before it dies a painful death? And should we even care?

Let’s address the caring part first. We should care. There’s certainly a place for pre-roll advertising, but it’s not in front of user-generated content. It’s in front of professionally produced content that audiences are used to seeing advertising in front of and within professional content, such as news, TV, and serialized programming. There’s a lot of money to be made by offering advertisers the opportunity to be the sole sponsor of even just a short piece of good content. The value disconnect happens when the goodwill exchange breaks down. Free content for less than 30 seconds of advertising is a fair exchange. But 30 seconds of advertising for every piece of content is just not going to fly for consumers in the long run.

Here’s how we can change all that:

  • Make ads better. We can make ads more tolerable and in many cases more engaging than the content it precedes by making them better. Good TV commercials have longevity and appeal, and in some cases they’re actually anticipated. There could be such a thing as good pre-roll advertising. But can you name one good pre-roll ad you’ve seen that wasn’t already a TV spot? I can name one. And it was from almost two years ago. It was Cadillac’s “Under 5” ad. Know why it was so good? Because it was slick and under 5 seconds long.
  • Make ads shorter. Fifteen seconds? Thirty seconds? Bah. Research continues to show that audiences want shorter ads. The audiences we advertise to think :15 ads are better than :30 ads. And :10 ads are better than :15 ads. Pre-roll advertising is no place for narratives. There’s no reason we can’t deliver a smart, entertaining, effective ad in less than 10 seconds. Heck, the consumer would probably appreciate the effort, and we would save money on video CPMs (define) in the process.
  • Make ads more relevant. Better targeting: it’s that simple. Make sure the ads are shown to the right people in the right place at the right time. We advertisers have experiences where we are impressed by another advertiser’s personal direct hit. Take Fast Company’s Lynne Johnson’s at experience with Bose (courtesy of Chris Thilk at AdJab). Johnson was hit with an offline ad and was reminded that, yes, she did want a pair of in-ear headphones.

    With the Web’s sophisticated targeting capabilities, we can get even more refined. This puts ad networks and portals (with their troves of user data) in great positions to bring not only targeted, waste-minimizing solutions to advertisers but also appreciated relevancy to consumers. But what good is it if you’re hit with the same ad five times in five minutes?

  • Make ads less frequent. One reason TV ad frequency is so high is there’s a relatively high percentage of people who don’t see it the first three times. You’re dealing with a more captive audience online, and with pre-roll. Why bombard them with such a high ad frequency? We must limit pre-roll ad frequency. Significantly. Make it more of a premium. Charge higher CPMs. If the average user session consists of 10 minutes of video viewing, limit it to two pre-roll ads, for example. Some properties are already doing this. We must follow their lead.

As a consumer, I wish pre-roll ads would just go away. But the more I think about it, and I think about it a lot, taking too idealistic or too consumer-centric an approach may do more harm than good. Advertising can certainly be less intrusive, but it can also be better. It’s our responsibility, on behalf of the industry, to determine the optimal ad levels that audiences will tolerate and will still be effective (call it a Goldilocks Theory, where those levels need to be “just right”).

At the end of the day, we’re trying to convince consumers our product is the one worth owning or using. There are direct and indirect ways to do that. Although the indirect ways will always be most authentic and, therefore, the most effective at shaping brand perception in the long run (and my preferred way, I might add), many advertisers must still have a pitch. If that pitch can’t be direct enough to be delivered in 10 seconds or memorable enough to only have to be seen twice, it might be time to rethink the pitch — and the strategy.

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