Video Vertigo: Right Format, Wrong Product

For the last year or so, a debate has been raging about whether online pre-roll ads have a future. At every meeting, conference, or industry cocktail event I attend, the topic du jour seems to be whether the industry should drop pre-roll - the video ads that precede online clips - in favor of some new, undefined ad model. The arguments against pre-roll have been fairly consistent: Viewers hate them; they're too intrusive; they don't leverage the capabilities of the digital platform; they aren't relevant; and, my personal favorite, you can't skip them.

But pre-roll - which, after all, is only an insertion point, or spot, where an ad can run - will survive despite those complaints.

That's because those criticisms don't stem from the pre-roll format, but from the fact that, in our haste to unlock the value of online video audiences, we've delivered a lousy end-result to the user. That's right - all of us are to blame: publishers, agencies, and marketers. (Full disclosure: I am leading a new Internet TV advertising network initiative.)

Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, maybe we should spend a little time digging into what is driving the current perceptions of pre-roll advertising.

So what factors are contributing to the problem? For starters, repurposing TV ads; running the same creative ad nauseam; and failing to leverage the targeting and interactive capabilities of the Internet platform to deliver an enhanced ad experience.

My bet: If ads were more targeted and relevant, ran less frequently, and were produced for the medium (shorter, with interactive and engagement hooks), we'd spend less time talking about how much viewers hate pre-rolls and want to skip them.

Meanwhile, a variety of business realities will continue to solidify pre-roll's existence. First and foremost is the monetization factor. Delivering video online costs money (every video stream is an incremental cost), and in a consumer-controlled environment, publishers need to be able to forecast and manage a relatively stable inventory pool. Pre-roll insertion provides that baseline.

Similarly, for brand marketers who rely on some level of intrusiveness (remember, not all products are so admired and desired by consumers that they evoke opt-in behavior to advertising content), a pre-roll insertion point allows communication to occur at a fairly predictable point in a viewers experience.

From an operational perspective, pre-roll insertion is the most scalable and standardized approach to in-stream insertion. It doesn't require stream-specific cue-points (extremely labor intensive to implement), in-content integration (problematic for many publishers who don't want ad messages directly tied to content), or reliance on the belief that viewers will "stick around" for post-roll ad exposure.

We all share responsibility for the current pre-roll dilemma. To jump-start the market, we made a conscious decision to move forward with an ad format (repurposed TV spots) that we knew wasn't ideal for the medium. If we don't now aggressively move to improve implementation, we risk hampering the online video business for years to come.

Agencies have to pay as much attention to creative innovation as they do to media planning and buying solutions. Publishers must evolve their selling strategies to broaden the advertiser base and rotation delivered in video environments, even if that means short-term hits to revenue. And marketers must start paying attention to the media programs being executed on their behalf, identifying shortcomings, and demanding change.

Yes, there are a variety of very interesting ad formats being developed, tested, and launched across a wide spectrum of content environments on the Web. Many of those solutions look nothing like a pre-roll video unit. Ultimately, those solutions will co-exist with pre-roll as the marketplace expands. There will not be "one" video ad format solution. Rather, the breadth of content (from consumer-generated to professional), its varied lengths (several seconds to over an hour), and multitude of distribution options (portal, destination, syndicated, viral) will require a number of very different ad model solutions.

For a significant portion of the marketplace, pre-roll advertising will be the solution. The unanswered question remaining is whether we, as industry participants, can do what it takes to make the model work.

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