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Some Question Just How Great Online Video Engagement Is 'This is the sleeper topic'

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Is online video engagement really as good as people claim it is?

No doubt, online video viewership is soaring. Total views rose 38 percent year-over-year in 2Q, according to FreeWheel, an online video solutions provider.

And with more than 20 percent of TV ads going unseen, it’s easy to understand why advertisers are also clamoring for online video content—so much so that prices for some online video are approaching the rates paid for TV ads.

But as with online display ads, expectations for online video are growing. Advertisers want proof that the ads they pay for are actually viewed, and are moving past completion and click-through rates to other engagement metrics like exposure time. Given what we know about TV ad skipping, could a focus on video ad avoidance be next?

"This is the sleeper topic, which we're starting to hear mumblings about," said Jonah Goodhart, CEO and co-founder of Moat, which measures online engagement.

Goodhart said the industry is starting to recognize that people watch online video more casually, while current online engagement metrics don’t tell the full story. Completion rates don’t take into account that the viewer could be muting the ad or switching to another tab while it plays, for example.

Looking at TV, a 2012 study out of UCLA found that people muted, fast-forwarded or changed the channel as little as 17 percent of the time. In the case of Apple ads those numbers climbed all the way up to 66 percent (sorry, Geico). EyeTrackShop data released earlier this year showed a TV ad’s brand recall and general perception drops 28 percent if the sound is off. And nearly half of TV households are time-shifting today anyway, the majority of which are using those services to skip the ads.

But such negativity is lost on online video stakeholders, who maintain that people are just far more engaged with online video than TV. They hold up stats showing that even as more ads are packed into online videos (up 12 percent year over year for longform content), the percent of online video ads that run to completion has risen across all ad types—from 68 percent in short-form content to 93 percent for longform.

Online video ad loads are still less than TV’s, pointed out FreeWheel's co-CEO Doug Knopper. “For four minutes of ads, you can make a sandwich and come back,” he said. “For 60 seconds, there’s not much you can do.” Some firms have begun tracking muting of online video ads and claim the sound is off less than 2 percent of the time.

Still, that’s premium online video, as opposed to the short online video that makes up most video views. And while muting an ad is a deliberate step, it doesn’t answer other questions like how long the ad was in view and how long the user stayed on the page.

“The key is not whether an ad was muted but whether the consumer actually paid attention and whether it was effective,” Goodhart emailed. “That's the only thing brands ultimately care about and I think we're in the early innings in terms of solving some of these larger questions.”

There are other signs of consumer resistance. A Starcom study found that 45 percent of viewers had a negative reaction to online video ads, versus 39 percent who had a negative reaction to TV ads (although Starcom also found the ads perform almost identically in terms of purchase intent and unaided recall). People watching YouTube ads using Google’s TrueView format (which lets them skip the ads) watch those ads just 15 to 45 percent of the time, which means a lot of ads are being skipped.

No wonder, then, that publishers like The Huffington Post have been investing in native video ads that feel more like content than regular brand ads. “It’s really organic to our site,” said Jorge Urrutia, Huffington Post's vp of operations. "It will definitely get higher engagement because it’s content.”

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In just a couple short years, Web video has matured from a burgeoning category to a dynamic new business distinct from TV. As a result, the biggest producers, executives and talent in the business are getting onboard, and the Web is nurturing its own breed of stars and storytelling genres. VideoWatch is dedicated to chronicling the players and developments in this exciting new industry. 

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