OMMA Magazine: Video Ads: The Polls Are Still Open

OMMA Magazine, by Steve Smith, November 2007 issue

The venerable pre-roll is hardly a lame duck, but other candidates are waiting in the wingsPre-roll ads are a little bit like the presidential primaries. Everyone loves to criticize them and all the attendant hoopla, yet we still use them as the principal method for selecting our leaders. The overwhelming majority of video ad money continues to place re-purposed TV creative online, even as columnists and trade conference panelists routinely upbraid the industry’s failure to embrace dedicated online creative and more consumer-friendly formats.
This season, however, there is no shortage of new ad unit ideas on the Web. From the video overlay to in-page streams, video-player skins to hot spots within the stream, new platforms enter the video ad market faster than, well, candidates.

But when we polled media buyers about which formats they favored in the race toward a better digital video ad, they seemed as undecided as early primary voters. Still, in our read of the electorate, buyers are open to new ideas in pursuit of two enduring values – greater interactivity with users and less annoying intrusiveness.

Brand “Tickers” Take Off
“Giving users a choice of whether to consume the media is a better way to go and it’s garnering better results,” says Alvaro Muir, associate media director, Moxie Interactive. Muir says he eschews the awkward intrusiveness of pre-rolls for the hot new video overlay format. Available from VideoEgg, ScanScout and now YouTube, the units let viewers click on a superimposed brand “ticker” that pauses the video to telescope in the sponsor’s rich media or video message. It’s purely elective, because users can resume the video experience at any time. For clients like Nestle and Puma, Muir likes that it is “a seamless approach that doesn’t force ads on you. The click-through rates and watch-to-completion rates are phenomenal.”

Overlays clearly are the hot frontrunner this season. ScanScout CEO Doug MacFarland says he served 30 million streams in August. He has up to 50 brand advertisers, 30 publishers, and twice as many in line. Buyers seem to like that the format plays well with user-generated video (85 percent of ScanScout’s streams) because it doesn’t hamper users sampling multiple clips. As a complement to pre-roll campaigns and a larger strategic plan for placing branded assets, Samantha Tenicki, supervisor of Starcom’s video activation team says this elective format “provides advertisers a more interesting way to display longer form content.” For film trailers and any brand assets that are more entertaining, the overlay offers more space than a pre-roll and allows pay-per-view pricing.

While hot, the overlay is not the slam-dunk successor to pre-rolls by any means. “It solves one problem – intrusiveness, but I don’t know if we solved for interactivity yet,” says Eric Bader, senior vice president and director of digital connections at MediaVest. Will users really interrupt their video experience to watch ads, he wonders. “It seems anathema to the way we use video.” And the overlay unit itself is really just a trigger that is most effective only when people click into it. “It doesn’t have the full attention of the audience,” says Brian Monahan, senior vice president at Interpublic’s Emerging Media Lab. To some buyers, an unclicked overlay is just another banner ad.

While Bader like overlays, he also favors the in-page video formats that are embedded in standard content because of the greater contextual relevance they allow over many in-stream opportunities.

Strip away UGC and news clips and there is not a lot of quality video inventory, say many buyers. They are looking for more innovative ways to get into and around the overall video ecosystem than placing 15- and 30-second ads around clips. “If you look for opportunities strategically, not just one-offs, you can uniquely leverage the content that is out there,” says Sarah Baehr, vice president of media at Avenue A/Razorfish. She is interested in creating sponsored custom channels at portals or video entertainment sites that let her integrate brands, while giving users the content experiences they like. “How do you involve video into being more strategic, a unique method of delivering an experience?” she asks.

Wrapped, Streamed and Everything In Between
“More interactivity is what we would love to see,” says Tenicki, who is encouraged by the elaborate video players that TV networks like ABC.com are using to stream primetime episodes. Giving people games to play or letting them multitask with your brand while leaning back for longer-form video helps solve the interactivity problem of pre-rolls but at the same time maintains visibility throughout the viewing experience.

Persistence of message and share of voice continue to concern planners, especially as pre-rolls shrink in size and become more elective in other formats. Skinning the video player is coming into favor at sites like Heavy.com. Doritos, AT&T, movie and game studios get 100 percent share of voice by wrapping messages and interactivity around the end-to-end video experience. “It provides a fully branded environment for the user … a more interesting experience,” says Tenicki.

A surprisingly effective way to get in users’ faces is running video pre-rolls while online games are loading at the very popular casual game portals. More than video, gaming is the most popular entertainment type online, and players are fully engaged and registered members who can be targeted. “The click-through rate is two to three times in-stream video ads,” says Mike Shehan, CEO of SpotXchange, where the format is becoming an unexpected hit. “And the video ad gets viewed almost 100 percent of the time,” he adds.

The Emperor Needs New Clothes
Some form of in-stream pre-roll remains the easiest and most prevalent choice among planners. And for the foreseeable future, the pre-roll will attract most spending, but almost everyone agrees the format needs to evolve. SpotXchange reports that in just the last six months, both publishers and buyers seem to have moved from 30s to 15s as a reasonable exchange of pre-roll ad time for short content viewing. Surrounding the in-stream ad with supporting banners and rich medium is “klunky,” Bader admits, but “we’ve been forced to be creative with other interactivity in order to pay off the medium.”

And there is nothing wrong with the constraints of the pre-roll if we just take up its challenges more seriously, many argue. “Here is a chance to create something you can think about objectively: how much brand permission do you have,” says Randy Kilgore, chief revenue officer of in-stream ad server Tremor Media. “How entertaining and humorous can you be?”

But the real problem of the pre-roll may be brand alignment. Every format has its place, buyers seem to argue, but none is effective unless the ads relate more directly to the user’s state of mind, context or task at hand. For clients like Discovery Channel and Diet Coke, executive creative director of imc2 Alan Schulman is focusing on 10-second “contextual pre-rolls” that can match up with audience demographics or content. “You can tell just as entertaining a story in 10s as 15s and still be contextual,” he argues.

Bader foresees lighter, less expensive spots that are more numerous and targeted. “Instead of creating one asset you showed a thousand times, we’d love to have a thousand creatives that we show once.”

Contributing writer Steve Smith is a longtime new-media consultant and columnist, and current editor of Digital Media Report for MinOnline.com and Mobile Media Report for TelecomWeb.com Contact him at popeyesmith@comcast.net.

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