Column: Who’s Watching Pre-Roll Ads?

Aug 24, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Does anyone really believe that consumers like pre-rolls ads online?
Because I think pre-roll ads—the ones that walk and talk like 15- or 30-second TV commercials and run in front of Internet programming—simply suck.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get that ads are the price of admission to watching free content. I don’t have any problem with that concept. But just because I understand, accept and sometimes embrace that exchange—you make content for me, I watch ads for you—there is no reason on earth that those ads should be pre-rolls.
So when Break Media and video ad network Tremor Media, two online video companies I like and respect, touted the pre-roll last week in their recently released studies, I had to ask both companies: “Who’s to blame for the persistence of this sucky ad format?”
That’s a leading question, said Keith Richman, Break CEO. “We aren’t saying people love them, but I do think what the studies are showing is to watch content they are interested in, people will accept and watch pre-rolls,” he said.
Break’s study found that over an 11-week period, the click-through rate for pre-rolls is about 10%. Now, I watch a lot of online video and I can’t remember the last time I clicked on a pre-roll ad—or if I ever have. So 10% seems pretty high.
The study also found that completion rates for both 15-second pre-rolls and interactive pre-rolls was 87%, meaning only 13% of viewers were so turned off by the ad that they clicked away.
Tremor Media reported similar results. In a study tracking nearly 65 million ad impressions, Tremor said consumers watched 15- and 30-second pre-roll ads all the way through 80% of the time.
Tremor Media CEO Jason Glickman said completion rates are high because the ads run in front of professionally produced material rather than user-generated content. “It is proof that audiences are willing to accept pre-roll advertising in exchange for the content they want, on demand,” he said in a statement.
I’m not sure I agree. I think the results are proof that consumers got up and went to the bathroom during the ad, or proof that they surfed off to another site while the ad ran.
Look, I want the online video advertising economy to succeed. The more advertisers pony up to sponsor online programming, the more I can cover the best beat there is.
But I just don’t buy that the pre-roll ad is the best foundation for this business. Overlays are better, host shoutouts are better, brought-to-you-by messages are better.
We should use those instead.
But don’t hold your breath. Advertisers aren’t ready, Mr. Richman said. “Advertisers are making creative for television and there is not a budget yet and research yet to support making the dominant form interactive ads, so they aren’t willing to invest in two different creatives,” he said.
How do you feel about pre-roll ads? Let us know by posting a comment.


  1. Pre-rolls do suck and honestly I didn’t even know that a pre-roll was interactive and clickable?! I usually quickly bounce over to another site until the pre-roll is over and then return when the content I actually want starts to play. I’m sure many others do that as well so the 87% “completion rate” is a bit skewed. They should measure (if possible) what percentage actually have their eyeballs on the pre-roll ad.
    I believe that interactive brand integration and overlays will be the most desired formats going forward. Radio ads didn’t work on TV, and pre-rolls don’t work for online video either.

  2. I shouldn’t say pre-rolls suck, though they do, maybe they’re a necessary evil. Like most people I find something else to do waiting for the content I want to watch to begin.
    30 seconds is too long, 15 seconds might be too long but at least bearable. It’s a question of quality. I’ve seen a few ads that have caught my attention (very few). Advertisers & Marketing need to find their way in a new medium…this isn’t radio or TV…ads need to be tight, focused, sharp and with a touch of the amazing…maybe visually or with humor but they have to be worth watching.
    If you want to sell me something don’t feed me schlock…show me something fantastic…so it’s not the format I mind as much as the tired, old concepts that don’t really fit

  3. Pre-Rolls are terrible. If you’re gonna give me pre-roll it better be funny or really cool looking, and keep it short. I hate to admit it, but watching online content is the one time I get that, ‘I want it right now or I’ll download it for later’ feeling.
    It’s bad enough I usually need to wait for what I actually want to see to buffer, now I need to wait 30, sometimes 60 seconds before it evens starts to do that? Yuck. At least if there’s pre-roll on a video podcast I can skim past it.
    What’s worse, it’s almost always the same spot for everything on the same site. Mix it up or people will get bored fast.
    I much prefer when there’s a brought to you by, or a host shout out. At least then I can feel like the people doing the shout outs might actually believe in what they’re touting. Audible on TWiT is a perfect example, I actually think the guys on TWiT really like and use audible. That made me want to check out the service, try it out, and eventually subscribe. I wouldn’t buy into everything, but still its a prime example.

  4. nyef, what you gonna do, to my mind pre-rolls are the price of admisssion, and if its no longer than 30 seconds I will watch it happily enough every time. As an ex ad monkey, pre rolls shouldn’t suck, they do but they shouldn’t.
    Also sucks a heck of a lot less than ads in middle of prgramming which always get my fwd button going, as soon as i hear ‘and now a word from our sponsor’ you msut be moved through quickly!

  5. I think that pretty well sums it up Daisy. I’m guessing the 10 percent CTR is people trying to make them go away. I can’t stand them, but I am willing to grudgingly accept them as the price of admission. There are some very sharp people in the advertising world, but this is the best they can come up with? Really? To me it is just a 15 second delay until I can watch what I planned.
    That said, I have to give a shout out to Saturn and Moblogic. I think the adds on that video podcast are generally well tailored to the audience and I find the way they do five or so seconds at the beginning (after the show pre-roll) and the rest at the end to be the most palatable.

  6. Pre-rolls suck. I can deal with them in a long video, but why a pre-roll before a 30-sec commercial? (Yes, you, Ad Age)
    I prefer decently placed overlays and mid-rolls, although I’ll be watching the timer more than the commercial.
    Even the brought-to-you-by messages make me want to look somewhere else until the ad is over.
    I like the ABC.com model in which only one advertiser sponsors the whole show, so it doesn’t matter what you pay attention to, you get the brand recall anyway. When it’s more than one, there are too many brands to remember, plus I don’t even care because they’re delaying or interrupting my video.

  7. Great, sharp questioning as ever, Daisy. Advertisers should absolutely do a better job meeting viewers’ experience expectations while attempting to meet bottom lines.
    Some principles I’ve thought of…
    Proportionate to the video you’re intending to watch. If I’m watching a 30-second clip, then anything longer than a 2-second “brought to you by” card is annoying. Maybe even get all experimental and counter-culture and do a 0.5-second “did I see what I think I saw?” type of ad (think: Tyler Durden).
    Keep it short(er).Conversely, just because I’m watching an hour of Firefly on Hulu, doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy a 30-second pre-roll. I don’t have to sit through a pre-roll like that on TV… why would I want it online? Do a “brought to you by” card and use the cold-open break to show your first 30-second spot.
    Smart pre-rolls. You should know if I just watched a pre-roll for another video and didn’t even get a third of the way through that one. For example, I would love to watch Kevin’s Loan from The Office on NBC.com, but their player kills me. It always makes me watch a 30-second pre-roll ahead of the first episode, which I’ve already seen… so then I click on the 2nd (or 3rd, etc.) episode, and I have to watch another pre-roll ad. Sheesh! (Stephen King’s Nishere.com does a great job of this, btw)
    Countdowns. They’re a must. Show me the difference between a 5-, 15-, and 30-second commercial.
    Point to an ad after the video. Big Fantastic’s Prom Queen videos had a 3-to-5-second card for Hairspray that referred to a full commercial to come after the episode. I thought that was smart and got me to watch it, at least the first time.
    Pre-load my video while I wait. That way, I can move straight from the pre-roll ad to my intended viewing experience glitch or stutter-free. It’s a small service that could engender some goodwill towards ad-viewers like myself.

  8. Mike Griggs has the million dollar question… Why aren’t advertisers making the pre-rolls more entertaining and/or remarkable? To that end, MY question is, would better creative on the pre-rolls make them less annoying? Or is their existence alone what makes them so detestable?
    And while click-thru may be the only yardstick to measure effectiveness, do impressions count for anything? I mean, I may not click the NetFlix pre-roll ad every time I see it, but the repeated exposure certainly makes me think of them first when I need someone to handle ‘all my at-home movie rental and delivery needs.’

  9. I agree. I don’t like watching the same spot on the same site and certainly not in the same content. I also don’t like when the spots are too long for the content. But, I don’t necessarily think we need to condemn the unit as a whole. I think I see things a little differently since I’m on the ad sales side for an online video advertising network (SpotXchange) and I often have discussions like this with media buyers. One key to this is that pre-rolls are more accepted by consumers simply because they are used to them. As for other formats, like overlays, people don’t expect them and don’t know what to do. So it’s back to the issue of acceptance.
    Personally, I think it’s a content/context issue. Make the ad relevant. Also, be cognizant of frequency. I know it has been addressed in this discussion, but I’m going to beat the dead horse. When I watch The Hills (slightly embarrassed) I don’t mind seeing a Target ad for their new one-off designer of the moment, but if I see that ad four times I get annoyed. Or, if I am watching a business news clip I want to see commercials for Blackberry or ING.
    So, yes, pre-rolls can be annoying, but some of the fingernails-on-the-chalk-board-frustration can be tempered if we are more cognizant of user experience. That’s something both the vendors, like myself, and media buyers should be thinking about.

  10. Generally, pre-roll ads do “suck.” As a user, I don’t want to wait for the ad to roll– take me to the content! As others have pointed out, you generally spend time watching the time remaining clock or poke around in a different browser. As a publisher and marketer, I really want to find the online ad format that works well for video so we can create even more great content. But the pre-roll doesn’t seem to do it. I believe advertising is about problem solving– helping the advertiser increase awareness, sell more widgets, engaging more customers, etc. If the pre-roll vehicle is not effective (Tremor and Break’s evidence to the contrary), then I’m going to continue leading advertisers in the direction of overlays and sponsored bys.

  11. While we can all agree that pre-roll is a stupid, old media way to try and advertise via online videos, its really a bigger truth: People don’t hate ads, they hate ads that aren’t relevant. And I don’t mean “Google Ad Words” relevant.
    The winner in the video advertising space is going to be the person who can elegantly integrate ads for products and services that are directly related to the video you’re watching. If you’re watching Cali Lewis talk about a new piece of tech, the ad should be a chance to purchase that new item…not a movie trailer. Same with shows like MobLogic…give me a chance to donate to a cause, buy some non-profit merch or something else directly related to that day’s story.
    Crack that nut and you can retire. 🙂

  12. Chiming in late, but nevertheless going to chime in.
    All I see is a bunch of people bitching and moaning without a solution. I see greed. I see nothing that resembles anything to close to an understanding of the online ad model, video production costs, and a value exchange.
    Do you think TV likes the fact that you skip commercials? No. So they make sure you can’t when doing it online.
    Pre-roll isn’t the problem. Poor implementation of pre-roll is the problem. How many 1 minute ads for viagra do I have to see on TheStreet.com just to watch a financial news update? Does everyone who invests have ED?
    Overlays aren’t effective and they don’t drive enough revenue to the publisher. Remember, nobody asked you if you thought that every actor on Friends deserved $1mil per episode, but that money needs to come from somewhere.
    Saying you want “good pre-roll” is ridiculous. There’s plenty of bad advertising. Lets not blame pre-roll for all bad advertising.

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