Log Off: Let the Good Times Pre-Roll?

As broadband rapidly approaches ubiquity in American households, marketers are turning to streaming as a means of reaching tech-savvy consumers. Unfortunately, many marketers find themselves swimming upstream when they could just as easily be riding a powerful downstream flow to success.

As rich media delivery continues to improve, kids can watch a whole host of on-demand programming right from the family PC. Adults can watch not only first-run shows, but reruns and Web-only programs as well. As more people are spending time online, using the Web to market products and services makes more and more sense.

With all the media choices that have emerged, we still haven't found a way to increase the number of hours in a day. This means, in turn, that marketers need to break through the clutter and deliver compelling messages that elicit a response. And just to complicate matters, consumers are smart and quickly learn how to avoid messaging, whether by changing the channel or leaving the room when the commercials come on, or by time-shifting their DVR or PC media player.

To illustrate the careful consideration that must go into any successful streaming media strategy, let's look at just one issue: rich media commercial placement.

The argument can be made that when there is valuable content that people are looking for, seeing an ad prior to getting to the content would have a significantly higher value to the advertiser. In the early days of streaming media, I would have agreed wholeheartedly. Today, my opinion has changed somewhat.

As consumers have become more Web-savvy, many have grown accustomed to pre-roll ads and have essentially learned to tune out for the first 15 to 30 seconds, knowing full well that the sought-after content will start momentarily. This is not to say that people entirely avoid watching the ads. But consumers are unquestionably training themselves to multitask or zone out during those first 15 or 30 seconds. Once the actual content has begun, it makes sense to infer that viewers might be more receptive to a relevant commercial. And this is where the heart of the argument lies.

When someone is already engaged in compelling content online, the case could be made that a brief interactive commercial interruption could have a significant impact for the marketer. The number of people who launch a pre-roll ad is probably very high compared to those who actually watch it. Though the number of people who watch an online program long enough to get to an in-stream ad is probably much lower, the consumer seeing the in-stream ad might be more targeted, more engaged, and thus far more valuable for the advertiser.

Most streaming media spots are now running as pre-rolls. Put another way, the majority of streaming media spots are probably not having the greatest possible impact on viewers.

As John Wanamaker famously quipped, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don't know which half." The pre-roll versus in-stream question is a modern-day version of the Wanamaker dilemma. And, of course, while we debate the issue, even more streaming options -- cell phones and iPods, for example -- are entering the competition for the consumer's heart and mind.

What does it all mean? Simply this: while content and technology are uppermost in most marketers' minds, we must place equal emphasis on the media strategies that make it all work. At the end of the day, the greatest rich media spot in the world will fall into the wrong half of Wanamaker's equation if it isn't placed in the most optimum viewing environment.

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