The Role Of Rolls: Pre-Roll And Online Video Advertising

OK, so you've spent a ton of cash on developing a memorable 15-second video spot for TV.  Doesn't it then make sense to get as much mileage out of it as possible?  And doesn't this mean that you should look to repurpose that spot wherever you can, specifically in online video advertising?  Sometimes, but not always.  

There are times and places where repurposing a brief video can be impactful, but it has to be 100% relevant to everything around it.  Plenty has been said and written about the pros and cons of using pre-roll in various contexts, but let me weigh in on why effective online video advertising cannot be limited to pre-roll:

The Age of Authenticity is Here:  What constitutes a high-quality message is changing in the eyes of the consumer.  Online, high production value commercials from the age of TV, sometimes with no actionable message, are starting to be replaced by more authentic and informative ads that cost a small fraction of the TV-style ads to produce.  In this way, small businesses that have an authentic and easy-to-understand message can go toe-to-toe with bigger competitors who've historically banked on budgetary advantages to develop expensive pre-roll spots.  The Internet as a medium has brought this macro-trend forward:  Information is more accessible.  Search makes research easier.  Sites like WebMD exist to inform visitors, not entertain.  Why shouldn't video ads do the same?  

The Viewer is Now In Charge: One of the benefits of the Web is that the viewer can be in control.  In broadcast television, viewers were really not in control.  Appointment-based viewing meant viewers had to get home in time to see a program at the appointed time.  And watching that program meant watching the commercials (or leaving the room to get a snack).  Time-shifting and place-shifting has changed the experience for television viewers.  Viewers can now watch on their terms, not the advertisers'.

At the onset of the development of commercial Web sites,  advertisers underestimated the importance consumers placed on having control -- and the marketing ploy called "pop up" ads was invented.  They were short lived at a mass scale not just because they were annoying but because they took control away from the viewer and forced them to view something they did not want to view.

 If we accept pre-rolls alone as the de facto standard, we are going back in time to forcing users to watch, whether relevant or not:  After all, if an Internet user wants to watch a John McCain or Barack Obama speech, what is the benefit in forcing them to watch an  irrelevant 15-second pre-roll commercial for deodorant advertiser XYZ?  It is very important here to note that online video advertising is not just about video ads in front of existing video content.  Online video ads can live in directory profiles, Web sites, landing pages, banners, and other targeted places online.  

Length Doesn't Always Matter: In video ads we've deployed for clients, we've consistently found that length matters far less than the quality and information provided.  Whether as an in-banner video ad or on a video-enabled profile or landing page, we've, routinely seen average view rates of 50% to 70% of the video, regardless of whether it is 30 seconds or 3 minutes long.

What is the residual fuss with a 15-second video ad length anyway?  Why not 22 seconds or 2 minutes?  15-, 30- and even 60-second video lengths are rooted in commercial pods placed within and around television programming.  Do they really apply in an online world?  Maybe length matters when a national advertiser is trying to keep the annoyance level down as an interstitial between what the viewer expects to see when they click on a Obama or McCain speech and are instead greeted with the pre-roll deodorant ad.

Quality is being Redefined:  Big brands still seem to equate high quality with high production value. 15-second video ads fit perfectly into that equation because it costs a lot more to squeeze a message into 15 seconds than three minutes.  But if you define quality as the benefit received by the viewer (in this case information value), it takes an entirely new meaning.  Quality is about the information and trust in the business that is providing it.   Consequently, local small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are perfectly suited for longer-form video ads.  Local SMBs rely on good customer service and selling in a more personal way.  They have to, because they want that customer to show up at their door.  And this value proposition cannot be conveyed in exactly 15-seconds, no matter the production budget.  

There is a misperception that high-production-value videos translate to better results.   We are seeing equally high conversion rates with much lower-cost custom video -- authentic pieces with product demos, testimonials with real customers, and locally produced repurposed commercials with the real owner or dealer talking as with big brand commercials.  

Goals are more measureable than ever:  At the end of the day, it all comes down to what advertisers are trying to achieve.  Is it branding?  Is it to drive measurable sales?   The "lean forward" opportunity of online video vs. the "sit back" experience with broadcast puts potential customers that much closer to taking action - beyond just viewing.  

With 15-second pre-rolls, all advertisers really get is 15 seconds of engagement.  For big brands, it may be enough to know that X percent of people viewed their video ad.  For local SMBs, however, they need more than the hope that viewers will turn into customers.  They want to know how much someone watched of their video ad and if they took action that drives them closer to a sale.  They want direct response.  

On their own, pre-rolls simply fall short here, as they do on a number of measures in terms of  realizing the full potential of online video advertising.  Some of today's most effective video ads are either custom, long-form information-focused ads that encourage direct response and interaction (such as a tour of a selected real estate property)  or even photo slideshows that can perform just as well.  Today, format matters less than being truly informative.  

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