Buying Video Across Screens: Modus Interruptus

Editor's Note: This classic Video Insider was first posted March 25, 2014.

The advertising world is abuzz about the emergence of cross-screen audience buying for video.  And they should be -- whether through custom design or programmatic, there’s a plethora of opportunities here for brands.  As an advertiser, short of basic product timing and other minor issues, why should I care if my consumer is watching “Justified” on a television at the appointed network time, or via Hulu Plus, or a DVR at some self-appointed time on a smartphone, tablet, or desktop? 

There are still many questions about unbundling, the universality of metrics, brand efficacy, and more. But for now, cross-screen video buying is a step towards a unified media strategy that is both highly focused and screen-agnostic.

That said, one thing I’ve noticed missing from the dialogue is new thinking about this experience from the consumer point of view. And that’s because despite the new opportunities here, traditional TV is still driving the advertiser mindset.

Surprisingly, the TV advertising experience and format has barely changed since the 1960s, when commercials and commercial pods replaced brand-funded TV series. Product placement, sponsorship, and occasional other variations of brand integration continue to ebb and flow, but we’ve basically been watching 15-, 30-, and 60-second TV commercials in groups that total between 15% to 25% of every programming hour for the last 50 years.  There hasn’t been much innovation there.  And because of the entrenched nature of our mindset, much of our industry is simply plugging those same :30s into pre-roll.

Today, using different screens and applications, people are basically self-directing their content. They’re becoming their own programmers.  There is no reason to assume that the best video ad experience that has worked on television will be the best use case across screens.  When HBO released “Lucky Louie,” I read that neither audiences nor writers were prepared for the different experience of watching a “sitcom” without breaks.  Similarly, I’ve felt the jarring sensation that accompanies random interruptions in theatrically released films once they’re released on television.  Bringing the TV commercial experience to digital is just exporting an annoying experience in a passive viewing environment to a potentially interactive environment.

As cross-screen buying becomes more of a reality, brands and agencies need to ask themselves what sort of experience might be better suited to these different channels with different sorts of content. Regardless of the available technology, we need to continue to innovate.

Here are some factors to take into consideration:

Length:  Why do ads have to be 15 or 30 seconds long?  Length used to be dictated by timing and the physical delivery of assets, but we’re now past the analog age.  Vine works in six seconds, Instagram is up to 15 seconds, and of course YouTube often runs in increments of up to roughly four or five minutes. Digital allows for varying length.

Pods:  Why do we have to group everything in the same way? New forms of content may provide different kinds of space for us to use. For instance, I’ve noticed some radio stations running simple brand callouts in between songs.

Customization:  Want customization?  Have the content provider make your ad  -- talk about contextual relevance.  It’s been tried occasionally on TV, but digital creators can do it at scale.  I worked for over 15 years in the high-end TV commercial production world, which is ripe for disruption and could, if not provide savings, provide enough money for vast customization.

There is a wealth of opportunity in cross-screen video buying. It would be a shame if we stopped innovating and instead plastered the same exact TV spot across screens. By thinking more about the consumer POV, we can unlock the real potential of cross-screen.


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