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6 Things Geico and Vimeo Taught Us About Making Great Preroll Ads in 2015

How to turn an annoying format on its head

The insurance company made one of the year's best ads. YouTube: GEICO Insurance

Few ad units have the ability to annoy consumers the way preroll does. For many viewers, it's just a matter of counting down the seconds until it's over.

But 2015 provided a couple inspiring examples of preroll ads—Geico's "Unskippable" and Vimeo's "Interrupted"—that marketers can learn from.

Geico's "Unskippable" preroll series consists of four spots, including "Family," "Elevator," "Cleaning Crew" and "High Five." Interestingly, "Interrupted" is more of an anti-ad than an ad—a clever short that speaks to the agonies of preroll ads, running on YouTube as a provocative call to get viewers to switch over to the ad-free platform Vimeo. "Unskippable" has raked in over 8 million views on YouTube, and "Interrupted" has scored over 1.3 million.

We spoke with branding and video ad experts to find out what makes the clips so engaging, and what that says about successful preroll as a whole. Here are six takeaways from the discussions.

1. Own the annoyance factor 

When brainstorming for "Unskippable", The Martin Agency took into account first and foremost that people despise preroll ads. They let consumers' disdain fuel a creative vision.

"We [knew that] 94 percent of the time people will skip that preroll ad because they hate it," said Christie Chaffee, planning director at The Martin Agency, the creative team that worked on Geico's "Unskippable" campaign. "And so we gave them the challenge of: you have five seconds to solve this and get over that automatic reaction of skipping."

The Martin Agency wanted to make an ad that would not only be watchable, but also encourage shares on social media. "We pushed the creative team saying, we don't just want to make an ad that works, we want people to watch it and share it," said Chaffee.

It worked. The "Unskippable" ads have hundreds of thousands of views each, and Chaffe said the work has won 33 industry awards to date. (It was recently featured in Adweek's Ads of the Year issue.) 

2. "Punking" viewers can win them over

Vimeo's "Interrupted" features two lovers trying to communicate via sign language with subtitles transcribing their words, as fake pop-up ads infiltrate the screen, blocking out the subtitles. When you first watch, you may actually try to "x" out of these ads. But of course, they're part of the whole promo, and they are there to illustrate that pop ups are nothing more than pesky distractions.

This ad straight up punks viewers, which is bold and exhilarating, but also proves a point. What's more, Vimeo ran the preroll ads via competitor YouTube, which relies on the format to generate revenue.

"Vimeo highlights how banner ads interrupt our experience watching digital video, often at inopportune moments," said Basil Shadid, executive video producer at Rational Interaction. "Video is an emotional medium—and banner ads take viewers out of the experience momentarily, temporarily altering their emotional connection with the video."

Frank Lipari, creative director at Fetch, calls Vimeo's ad a "meta" and "self-aware" approach that resonates with viewers.

"Advertisers are fast realizing that cheap, down and dirty digital advertising techniques have put the consumer into a slumber. Bombarded with up to 5,000 ads a day, brand communication has been accepted into our cultural milieu," said Lipari. "The key [to success] can be found not only in contextual advertising that respects the uniqueness of each platform, but successfully engaging the user by including them as a part of the joke."

3. Don't give viewers the same ad over and over

Geico has a number of ads in the "Unskippable" series, which helps lend variety when you're watching more than one video on a site.

"Typically when you're on a site viewing more than one video, you see the same preroll spot over and over," observed Eric Cosper, CCO at FCB Garfinkel. "I really wish there were more opportunities to tell a continued story about a brand in preroll. Like every time you access a different video on a site like CNN.com you get a new episode of the idea."

Here's an area where both preroll as an ad medium, and the brands tapping it into, need to evolve. Unfortunately, it can be tough to acquire the budget necessary to make variations of preroll ads for a single campaign. 

4. Treat preroll with the same respect as traditional ads

Both Vimeo and Geico grab viewer's attention by poking fun at preroll, but they're more than just jokes. Part of what makes them successful is that they work as ads, which is to say, they effectively communicate a message to consumers.

"I think the same criteria for judging any advertising is applicable here," said Paxton Song, COO at FuelX. "Is it relevant? Is it entertaining? Is it memorable?"

Advertisers do have to learn some new, ironic dance moves to make preroll work, but that doesn't mean they have to throw the rest of the tools in their advertising kit out the window. And remember, we're still early in the days of mastering preroll.

"I strongly believe that we will see a big shift in the video advertising landscape in the next year or so. After marketers saw how powerful retargeting was, it took about three or four years for that budget to shift from the brand marketing teams to the performance teams. The same thing will happen with video," said Song. "Marketers will demand the same level of performance from video campaigns as their paid search campaigns. It's inevitable."

5. If you tempt viewers, they'll keep watching

The message contained in the Geico "Unskippable" ads is literally "unskippable," because, as the narrator in the ads points out, they're only five seconds long. Once the five seconds pass, the viewer might be tempted to keep watching because there's still a good 25 seconds left in the ad. These remaining 25 seconds are humorously awkward, with the actors ridiculously frozen in place as the camera keeps rolling. Nothing really happens and it makes for an ironically watchable effect.

"Geico is the best at allowing the medium to guide and inspire the creative idea. That execution tempts viewers to keep watching in a natural way," said Cosper of FCB Garfinkel.

6. Don't repurpose TV spots

Brands can move their television budgets online, but they can't move their TV strategies there, too—or at least they shouldn't. When advertisers treat preroll video the way they treat TV commercials, they're bound to fail.

"You'll see brands repurposing their TV spots into preroll ads," said Chaffee of The Martin Agency. "They weren't made for that space though, so it doesn't work."

"We realized preroll [ads] had to be their own unique campaign, so people wouldn't skip them," said Wade Alger, group creative director at The Martin Agency. "If you've already seen it on TV 100 times, you won't want to watch it on your computer."

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