4 Ways To Make Pre-Roll Ads Engaging

Take a moment to consider the differences between the TV ad experience and the online ad experience. Watching TV is associated with sitting down and kicking back. Viewers may have a phone or a beer in their hand. It’s a passive experience and the ads are par for the course. In real-time viewing situations, commercial interruptions are beyond the audience’s control.

The online video viewing experience is more active; in fact, it’s interactive. Viewers are on a quest to watch that cat video, to see this week’s sports bloopers, maybe even to see that ad that everyone is talking about. A pre-roll ad interrupts this quest. However, this interruption can last as little as five seconds before the viewer takes back control and can choose to skip the rest of the ad.

When developing pre-roll advertising, a different strategy to keep viewers engaged is necessary. Many advertisers simply repurpose TV commercials for online video, but the same things that make a TV ad effective do not necessarily apply to pre-roll ads, particularly skippable pre-roll ads.



The truth is, it depends on several factors. In both media, successful ads communicate the brand or product to the viewer and change viewer behavior or perceptions. Broadcast ads must break though the clutter of a commercial pod and get attention. On the other hand, online ads have viewer attention, but need to motivate viewers to continue to engage with the ad beyond the no-skip threshold. So the challenge specific to online pre-roll ads is engaging viewers in those first five seconds.

Generating strong emotional reactions early in an ad drives viewers to want to keep watching. But many times TV ads delay or build emotional engagement, particularly in reveal style ads. Here are 4 ways for opening pre-roll ads with emotional engagement:

1. Give the people what they want: Coffee lovers love coffee. Pet owners love their pets. Extreme sports enthusiasts love first aid supplies (or maybe their moms do). If you have a product targeted to a specific audience, cue the category up front. Immediately letting your audience know that this ad is about something they love can generate strong positive emotion right off the bat.

This successful digital ad from Swiffer (over 10 million YouTube views), starts with an introduction of adorable cats and dogs to engage pet lovers beyond the opening.

2. Open with a question: Have you ever continued to watch a bad movie just to know the ending? Humans are natural storytellers, and satisfying stories have resolutions. Establishing a question up front to be answered, whether implicit or explicit, can create a desire for viewers to follow-through until the question is answered.

By essentially completing this ad in the first five seconds, this viral sensation from GEICO generates an implied question, “What happens next?” 

3. Embrace the unexpected: Making observations and predicting outcomes is inherently human. From man’s origins we’ve made observations like, “See that smoke? It means there’s fire. Don’t go there.” And, “That sleeping animal is a lion. Don’t pet it. Just don’t.” So when a reaction to a situation does not meet viewer expectations, they instinctively want to know why. An early introduction of an unexpected reaction can draw upon this instinct, keeping viewers hooked and engaged until they understand why.

In this case, Coffee-mate’s unexpected refrigerator placement, and the general acceptance of those fridges, would work in both broadcast and online environments.

4. Predictability is the Enemy of Engagement: Be careful that your ad does not give away the entire story in the first five seconds. If the opening cues an underdog story, viewers will easily predict who will come out on top and won’t keep watching. Even if there is an exciting twist at the end, it will be missed if viewers think everything is covered in the first five seconds.

If you have a TV ad that has a highly emotional opening, then it may be able to cross-function in the online arena. However, in those cases where your TV ad delays the emotional pay-off, consider developing a version tailored to fit the online experience.

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