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For digital video to live, the 30-second pre-roll ad must die

The 30-second pre-roll is the blink tag of our era. It's the ad format that drives users crazy, and it's just not right for Web or mobile. Here's how to fix video advertising and make online video profitable for everyone.

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
6 min read
Image: Your video will begin in 28 seconds.
Don't hate them because they're 30 seconds long. Molly Wood, CNET

Video is moving to the Web in enormous leaps; the promise of online video seems to be at our doorstep. Millions are cutting the cord, beloved television shows are returning through the seemingly divine intervention of online distribution, and people are consuming Web and mobile video in increasingly staggering numbers.

But all that video consumption is saddled with a burden that's keeping it from reaching its full potential: the ads just haven't caught up.

You all know the problem I'm talking about, and yes, you've seen it on our own site -- on videos hosted by me, and probably even the video embedded in this blog post. You want to watch a video on the Web, and before you can get to that video, you're faced with a 30-second ad that you can't fast-forward or skip.

In some cases, the content itself may be only a couple of minutes long, so the ad represents a huge time commitment relative to the length of the clip. And before you can move on to the next two-minute video, you might have to watch the same ad all over again. Result: you're angry at the publisher, you're angry at the advertiser, and everyone's brand takes a hit. The publisher and the advertiser haven't made an ad "impression" -- they've made an enemy.

We used to refuse to take 30-second ads in the earliest days of CNET TV, but even with 15-second ads, there are issues: the biggest one is repetition. If you watch three or four videos online, or watch a day of live programming like our CES coverage or the Holiday Help Desk marathons we used to do, you'll see the same ad three or four or 20 times. The result: brand rage.

I've been producing and hosting digital video for almost seven years now, and in that time, our feedback inboxes have constantly been full of complaints about the duration, frequency, and redundancy of ads, and believe me, I feel your pain daily. I'm a consumer, too -- in fact, I probably consume a lot more CNET TV than most people, and it's not like we have a magical in-house mechanism for skipping ads! I feel it when I watch YouTube, Hulu, video on other sites like Yahoo and CNN; virtually everywhere video appears online.

The question of digital video advertising is especially relevant now. According to Comscore, Americans watched an all-time high of more than 8.3 billion video ads in March, as they consumed almost 37 billion videos--some 21 hours per month of online video content.

The issue will only get more acute as video goes mobile -- and it is going mobile, and quickly. Cisco estimates that 70 percent of the world's mobile data traffic will be video by 2016, and it was already 52 percent of traffic at the end of 2011.

Those mobile minutes are even more precious than Web minutes. No one -- and I mean, no one -- will cheerfully tolerate a 30-second ad in front of a 1:30 clip on a phone, at least more than a couple of times. Not only are they annoying, they're an unacceptable data tax in this world of ever-tightening bandwidth limits.

Image caption: As a user, I like skipping ads. As a content producer, I fear it. Advertisers should hate it.
As a user, I like this. As a content producer, I fear it. Advertisers should hate it. Molly Wood, CNET

I've learned, over the years, that the reason for 30-second ads and ad redundancy is just inventory. Ad agencies and their clients create big, expensive video ads for television, and that's the exact same inventory they're using online and on mobile. In some cases, they're willing to figure out a way to cut down their 30-second ads into 15-second versions, but even that is time-consuming, might diminish the message of the original ad, and, in the eyes of the advertiser, isn't as effective as the full, cinematic, 30-second version.

But that is a battle we've been fighting now for seven years, and that's just at CNET. It's time for the paradigm of recycling TV content for digital to change at the root. We need new creative for digital advertising, and that'll help the entire industry reach its full potential a lot faster.

Every company wants to crack the nut on digital video, and everyone from publishers to advertisers want to figure out how to make money on it. There may be ads, but there aren't enough of them, they don't make as much money as TV ads, and although digital video consumption is growing, it's still not profitable enough to abandon broadcast. I've heard many a TV industry executive bemoan the fact that the money "just isn't there yet."

I believe that the money and the users will be there if we stop thinking about digital video as television on the Web or on mobile phones. There's a ton of innovation happening in digital video distribution and there's even a ton of innovation happening in the online video ad industry -- from mouseover overlays to media-rich ad units to metrics and analysis to skippable ads. The Internet Advertising Bureau just launched a competition aimed at innovating on digital ad formats.

But we won't get anywhere until we're working with something other than re-purposed 30-second TV ads. Those can work, to a small extent, when they're embedded in actual television shows online, as Adobe suggested recently at NAB. But even that data is misleading: users tolerate TV-like ads online, but they won't tolerate as many as on broadcast, and tolerating them to get to shows or live broadcasts isn't the same thing as enjoying them. If the ads don't, ultimately, help the brand, it doesn't matter whether people finished the whole thing (most likely on mute or while doing something else).

Image: Overlays are cool, but they're still overlaying a really long ad.
Overlays are cool, but they're still overlaying a really long ad. Molly Wood, CNET

So, how do we make ads a worthwhile, engaging, and even entertaining part of the digital video experience? Three steps, but the first step has to be:

  • Content
Make different kinds of ads. The first ad agency that creates a digital production studio for ads customized for online or mobile video has the potential to own the future. Digital video on the Web and especially on mobile is simply not the same medium as television, even if the content, in some cases, is exactly the same.

Yes, new ad formats and content will be expensive. It will require investment. But it's worth it, and there are ways to do it cleverly and more cheaply than creating broadcast video. Some companies are crowd-sourcing brand videos, whether as standalone content or, of course, 15- or 30-second ads. Simply create shorter ads--my colleague Rafe Needleman points out that, "you can make someone laugh or cry in 5 seconds. That should be the limit." Second step:

  • Technology
  • As I've been developing my upcoming show, I've been thinking a lot about innovative digital distribution. Ads also need to take advantage of all technology we're steeped in with digital video. Invent new formats like silent-ad overlays that aren't as intrusive as pre- or post-roll. Or, create or hyper-local promotion campaigns that use geo-location and local video or even still-image ads. Create feeds for deals and news, or push alerts for new product launches. And duh, use social, early and often. First create an amazing new piece of digital advertising content, then make it shareable straight from the phone or Website. Viral ads are the best ads, after all.

    Third, although this is still in the experimental stage, it looks like we can't escape:

  • Integration
  • This is the trickiest new ad development of them all, and I'm curious to read your comments and see what you think about it. Even as Adobe is claiming that users are "engaged" with ads more than ever, it's clear that 30-second ads may be watched, but only as a barrier to the really good stuff. So advertisers are pushing deeper and deeper integration into content: segments designed around specific products, promotional placement, asking hosts to read advertising copy or create commercial-like segments involving both the talent and the heavily branded product.

    Integration is obviously a tricky balance; it ensures that users see advertising, and see it from a trusted source. When it's too heavy-handed, though, it can cheapen all involved. And when you work for, say, a journalistic or reviews-based organization, it can start to raise uncomfortable questions with your viewers about objectivity and endorsement.

    I suspect that product integration will intensify in the short term, partly as an interim solution until the industry can create new, more engaging advertising that people like better than they like pre-roll (or integration, for that matter). But I'm curious to hear your thoughts on product integration in digital video, for both industry and selfish reasons, so let me know in the comments! Ads aren't going away, and I don't want them to, because I want to make great, high-quality video, and somebody needs to get paid for that to happen. So, what kind of ads do you want to see?