ESPN.com Makes Limited Ad-Skipping Play

Sony has been airing a trailer for the upcoming “Amazing Spider-Man” film. It’s action-packed and punctuated by a humorous line from Spidey: “You’ve found my weakness. It’s small knives.”

But by the time the ad has aired five times in about 40 minutes, a viewer might want to take a freshly sharpened machete to the screen.

Thank you, ESPN.

The network has been offering a SKIP THIS AD option for video ads running on a section of ESPN.com.

So, during last night’s Miami-Oklahoma City NBA game, viewers following it on the Gamecast hub could vanquish the superhero. It’s curious why ESPN hasn’t done more with Gamecast frequency capping – placing a limit on the number of times an individual sees the same ad – but at least it’s allowing viewers to fight back.

In recent weeks during NBA playoff and Major League Baseball games, viewers could skip all or portions of spots for an array of advertisers, including Clearwire, Corona, Kia, Klondike, Samsung, Subway, Taco Bell, Verizon and the Weinstein Co.

How blissful. YouTube is believed to be the only other online site offering an ad-skipping option, though its program is on a much wider scale than the limited Gamecast foray.

It’s unclear how many visitors Gamecast attracts, but the product is phenomenal. It not only offers the chance to follow a game -- play by play -- in near real-time. But it provides all kinds of supplementary information with statistics and charts for many sports.

Gamecast might be described as a combination of a racing form and Bloomberg terminal. And it’s a fantasy player’s delight.

Gamecast can be interactive with social media. There are links to ESPN Radio and related podcasts. (If a game is carried on ESPN, eligible viewers can watch it live.)

As networks are increasingly trying to offer more second-screen options -- where online content supplements what’s on TV – Gamecast could be a clear winner.  

Ads pop up on-screen about every 10 minutes with the SKIP THIS AD button appearing in the upper right. Good ads can garner attention. But when the same one comes up repeatedly, even the best creative can bring yearning for a direct-response spot for gold bars to bury in the backyard.

Overloading online viewers with the same spot seems to be an industry-wide problem. Content providers fully capable of implementing frequency capping -- presumably such as ESPN with Gamecast -- don’t seem to always emphasize it. So intentionally or not, credit ESPN for offering a partial solution.

A spot for DoubleTree hotels with Beatles hit “Good Day Sunshine” ran throughout a recent game. By the time it had aired for seemingly the 10th time, the song could not have become more grating and SKIP THIS AD more welcome.

The ESPN.com ad-skipping opportunity doesn’t always give the viewer free reign. In some 30-second spots, the SKIP THIS AD button appears only after the first 15 seconds.

But in pods running 45 or 60 seconds with two spots, the zap option allows the second ad to be zapped entirely and immediately.

During the NBA game last night, 30-second Spidey ads could be skipped after 15 seconds. U.S. Army spots that came after them could be thwarted completely. The same full-skip option applied to ads for Lenovo that followed spots for a Honda SUV.

(Ads running 15 seconds standing alone only have a skip opportunity at the very end.)

It’s unclear if the Gamecast SKIP THIS AD is a short-term play. Perhaps it’s part of a research initiative. There is no trace of a zap function elsewhere on ESPN.com.

Using Gamecast may be a passive experience, so completion rates on ad views could be very high. The SKIP THIS AD notification also occupies a small space and can go unnoticed.

ESPN surely will address frequency capping, as will other sites. They have to.

But ESPN should consider making SKIP THIS AD permanent on Gamecast and evaluate expanding it to other parts of its Web presence.

Not on every spot, but there's a potential gain in sprinkling the option in. ESPN has smartly resisted running the same ads in live game streams on ESPN3 that it does on TV, looking to create a standalone ad product with its own value.

Why not do the same with skippable ads? Wouldn’t an advertiser pay more if a viewer is given an option to skip, but watches all the way through?

Tracey Scheppach, a top executive at VivaKi, said many factors would go into that type of decisions, but “conceptually” paying more for zappable ads makes sense. “We welcome the opportunity to evaluate new ad models because we understand we have to change,” she said.

YouTube has an option allowing a consumer to skip a pre-roll spot five seconds after it starts. Advertisers are only charged if the ad runs completely or for at least 30 seconds.

Marketers seem to be embracing it. YouTube has said that 60% of its InStream ads now carry the skip function.

How much skipping is there? Quite a bit. YouTube says between 55% and 85% of the spots are zapped before completion.

On the matter of whether a skippable ad can cost more, citing a bunch of variables, the company didn’t provide a clear answer.

Comparing ESPN and YouTube is a bit like putting Eli Manning and a high school quarterback side by side. For one, ESPN can craft ad deals for premium real estate across TV, ESPN.com and other platforms. And YouTube has loads of inventory, so if supply outstrips demand, the ad-skip option can attract business.

Still, YouTube has been innovative. It will be interesting where ESPN goes next and whether its Gamecast move becomes Gamepast.        

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