It’s my opinion that the growing popularity of video as a form of digital advertising is a bubble that is bound to burst. I am referring specifically to video ads that appear on content sites, as opposed to pre-rolls and similar ads that appear as part of content videos.
Remember contextual ads, those double-underlined words or sentences, that, if you had the misfortune of mousing over them, would open a small hovering ad? Companies like Kontera and Vibrant took off like bright rockets in the night. Before long, these ad-tech stars came back to earth (some landing more softly than others) and the dreaded pop-up links became nearly extinct, to the collective relief of online users worldwide.
We should ask two questions about the parabolic trajectory of this particular form of digital advertising. First, why did they become so popular in the first place? Second, why did they lose popularity so rapidly?
The main reason contextual ads rose in popularity was because, when first introduced, they showed much higher engagement rates than traditional banner ads. Advertisers and publishers alike clamored for these miraculous new ad units that fit seamlessly within their content.
The main reason for the rapid collapse was, quite simply, that these ads were extremely intrusive, and the majority of impressions were most likely due to users accidentally hovering over the infamous double-underlined words. Users rapidly adapted, learning to spot and circumvent the telltale signs of these ads. Engagement rates plummeted. Publishers and advertisers fled. Companies failed.
The parallels with the current video ad craze should be self-evident to anyone who actually spends any time online. The first time I saw one of those self-expanding, auto-playing, inline videos while reading an article, I was admittedly intrigued. Today, as soon I detect one of them within my peripheral vision, I can feel my attention focusing tightly on the text as I seamlessly scroll the page so that my gaze can leap right over the video, landing cat-like on the next line of text as I scroll the ad out of view. For those publishers uncaring enough to play these videos with audio enabled, I typically immediately close the offending window, or, if I really care about the content, I will look up toward the video just long enough to find and click the mute button.
There is one fundamental difference between contextual ads and video ads that, in my opinion, will cause video ads to outlive their contextual counterpart. For contextual ads, once users learned to avoid the double-underlined words, the number of impressions plummeted. For videos, thanks to the industry definition of viewability, even if I completely ignore the video, mute it, or close the offending window, in most cases it will still count as a video impression. Hence it will take much longer before advertisers start to realize that their money is going down the toilet, or for publishers to realize that these ads are sometimes driving their own readers away.
This difference is equivalent to adding a powerful booster to the rocket that is propelling video ads skyward. But the same gravity-like forces that caused the contextual advertising rocket to crash are tugging inexorably on the video advertising rocket. As anyone who has studied physics – or simply tried throwing a stone up in the air – will know, a larger boost means a faster rise and higher trajectory, but the ultimate path will still be parabolic. And the crash will leave a larger crater.