The Problems With Pre-Roll

Pre-roll is like the nasty-tasting cold medicine of the digital advertising world: No one actually likes it, but everyone uses it anyway—partly because of habit, partly because of perceived benefit, and partly because we don’t know what else to do. A whopping 86 percent of marketers currently use pre-roll, yet 80 percent of them believe that consumers don’t like it. Why do we insist on annoying potential customers by forcing an undesirable ad format upon them? It’s not for a lack of creativity. Throughout the relatively short lifespan of digital video, advertisers have tried a myriad of ways to make pre-roll more palatable, from playing with ad length, positioning and volume to introducing that Trojan horse of online video advertising, the skip button. Yet it remains far from perfect. Here we examine the primary problems with pre-roll—and explore what other options might be on the horizon.

Problem #1: It’s Intrusive
In a recent survey of 300-plus brand marketers and agencies, more than half of respondents cited “annoyed viewers” as a top challenge of digital video advertising. But consumers’ intrinsic dislike of digital video interruptions may be less a reflection on pre-roll itself than it is on subpar targeting and creative, says Steve Carbone, chief digital and investment officer of MediaCom. “When there’s a poor execution, I do think it becomes an irritant,” he says. “If that is a perception, it is because we as an industry haven’t done it well.”

Problem #2: It’s Outdated
Too often, pre-roll looks and feels an awful lot like a television commercial—because that’s essentially what it is. Early digital video ads were simply repurposed TV spots, and the traditional 15- and 30-second pre-roll formats are a direct holdover from network- and cable-driven creative. “For me, pre-roll or mid-roll are the most TV-like ad units,” Carbone says. “They become a very comfortable type of buy that people understand.”

Problem #3: It’s Easy to Skip
In what other context do we invite—almost encourage—consumers to ignore our hard-earned ads? The skip button has become so central to the pre-roll experience that three-quarters of users say ad skipping has become an ingrained behavior. Among the marketers surveyed, nearly 40 percent believe that viewers skip pre-roll so frequently because it is “unengaging” and “intrusive.”

Problem #4: It’s Too Long
We all know how fickle online attention spans can be: In the realm of digital video, half a minute might as well be an eternity. Yet 84 percent of marketers report using 30-second video ads, even though only 13 percent believe it to be the most effective length. As an industry, we are coming around to the idea that we can say more with less. The six-second, unskippable bumper ad—introduced just two years ago—is already in use by more than half of marketers, and that figure is expected to reach close to 80 percent by 2020. By keeping digital video short and sweet, brands can circumvent the skip button and impart a complete message to consumers with minimal interruption.

Problem #5: It’s Not Relevant
Like any ad format, pre-roll is more effective—and less likely to annoy—when it’s well targeted. Trouble is, that doesn’t always happen. “We’ve seen greater ad tolerance on TV than with digital,” Ben Tatta, of data company 605, told Adweek. “With issues around viewer annoyance and ad skipping, depending on how you interpret that, it could have to do with ad length, but also ad relevance.” To improve the digital video experience, we must do a better job of delivering the right ad to the right viewer.

Problem #6: It’s the Best We’ve Got (Or Is It?)
Despite the widespread distaste for pre-roll, its continued prevalence indicates a lack of better options to this point. Our best attempts at finding an alternative to pre-roll—strategies like mid-roll, outstream and video overlays—are still far less utilized by marketers. But that may be changing. As the industry increasingly embraces shorter, unskippable ads, a new format is gaining traction: The six-second in-image ad. Delivered within a relevant article over the photo or illustration, this format earned high marks in a recent study of U.S. consumers for interest, engagement and trustworthiness, without being irritating or interruptive. Perhaps most importantly, in-image video ads drove significantly higher purchase intent among consumers than either pre-roll or outstream. And even more alternatives are on their way. This year, GumGum will introduce its In-Video format, an ad animation that overlays video content—without actually interrupting the video.

Effective digital video advertising without the problems associated with pre-roll? That’s a prescription we all can happily take.

Illustrations by Alejandro Parrilla