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Preroll Gone Horribly Wrong

I've been watching a lot of streaming online video over the last week. I've probably watched more in the past week than I have in the past year. So this is the first time I've had to deal extensively with the automated ad serving that is part and parcel of the online video model.

Here's my problem: I understand that ads are necessary to support these video sites, but why have we thrown out all sensibility in regard to ad placement?

I was watching a rather gruesome anime series about a serial killer and the doctor who is trying to stop him. There's blood. There's child abuse. There's alcoholism. There's racist clashes. And the first day I was watching it I saw the same Kraft Macaroni and Cheese ad every 3 minutes like clockwork. 10 episodes. That 60 times. The same interminably long 30-second ad.

I know ever line of that commercial. I know every cut. I know what's happening in the background. And I know that when she raises her right eyebrow we go to the camera card. And invariably I would go from cute, sassy kid back to a murder victim lying in a pool of blood.

My choice of entertainment aside, if this was traditional TV I doubt that Kraft or it's media buying agency would ever willingly buy time in such a series. I also know that they certainly wouldn't have thrown out all the rules about frequency and run the same ad over and over again until I would sooner gouge my eyes out than buy their new Baked Macaroni and Cheese. Yet, there I was watching the same 30 second ad, over and over and over again.

To be fair, on subsequent days the ad mix was a little better. I might actually get three different commercials within a given half hour. But I started to see a pattern and it became clear to me who was getting it and who was not. Online video is not a cable buy. You can't just buy an ad-serving network, specify a few sites and expect good results. You have to anticipate certain things. So I compiled a few rules of thumb from my own observations:

  • Know Where The Ad Is Running - On the surface a buy for Jell-o or Kraft that will include an anime site may sound good. But the juxtaposition of kids and kids dying was extremely disturbing and it did not reflect well on the brand. Be hyper aware of how your content will run.
  • 15 Seconds - These are not broadcast commercials. I was incredibly engaged with each and every ad, but my patience was thinner. I had a much higher opinion of the ads that got me back to the content quickly and I can still name every ad and their brand proposition.
  • Creativity Matters More Than Ever - Engagement is being forced with this model. So understand that if the spot is not intensely interesting it's worse than bad. The worst of the ads always came with a sigh from me and a gritting of my teeth as I had to endure them. 
  • Mix It Up - You have to assume that your ad may run repeatedly if the ad volume is low on the service. This means that your ad may be shown up to 12 times an hour. So alternate ads. Snickers did an excellent job of alternating two 15s during their buy.
  • Be Smart About Response - Ultimately I would never have clicked on any of these ads. There was always the choice to click (and Pensacola tourism even asked me to click), but no one was making me an offer that deserved me losing my place in the video. So if you're not making an offer, don't measure success by clicks. You won't get any. But don't be afraid to experiment with targeted offers. I might just have clicked if you enticed me just right.
  • I Blamed The Ads - My final point is really just a hazard of the territory. The ads would not auto-serve on the site I was viewing. I had to click play for every ad to begin. And then when the show would freeze, I just KNEW that the ad serving was to blame as I had to reload and find my place in the video again. Technically there's not much we can do until the sites and the ad servers get their act together. But be aware that you may be causing your audience stress. This is where I found a surprise. Despite the data showing preroll as best, in this context the preroll ads were most annoying. Having to reload the page and see that 30 second HP ad, obviously bought as the preroll placement, made me irritated at HP, not the site.

All in all I'm still a fan of the model. The potential good of running ad during online videos far outweighs the bad. But clearly we have to rethink both the creation and the delivery of these ads if we want to get the full benefit of the platforms.

What are your thoughts?

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