Google, Others Help Web Ads Navigate TV Pitfalls Television

One of the most popular methods of online video advertising—placing a 15- or 30-second commercial before Web clips—is considered by some to be repeating the same sins as the stodgy old television spot.

Google and others say the problem with so-called pre-roll video ads is that it mistakenly uses the same interruptive model that TV’s been using for 50 years. They argue that new ad models are needed that fit the Web’s unique characteristics as an on-demand, interactive medium.

Google last week took the wraps off its first foray into video advertising. Tellingly, the Web giant chose to take a different path by letting consumers choose the ads they watch.

“It’s not good for advertisers,” Gokul Rajaram, group product manager at Google AdSense, said of pre-roll. “You might end up resenting the brand because that brand is making you watch the ad.”

The sentiment is not the prevailing view among those selling and buying those ads. Ian Schafer, president of Deep Focus, a New York Web agency, said that pre-roll ads done well are a good user experience. It is also part of an ingrained, implicit bargain between content providers and users, others point out. “Users are used to seeing ads before content,” said Jason Glickman, CEO of Tremor Network, which inserts pre-roll ads. “The obvious alternative is for them to pay for the content.”

Google hopes to buck that trend. It is running video ads on sites in its AdSense network, placing a video player next to Web page content. Rajaram said Google is considering moving the streaming ads to its own properties, particularly its video service. The click-to-play ads appear as an in-page graphical image that will only play if a user chooses it. In one of its test executions with Paramount Pictures, trailers for Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, are offered on environmental and music-oriented sites.

Google is not alone in exploring new user-initiated ad models for Web video. YouTube.com, the most popular destination for Web video, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, has sworn off pre-roll. Instead, in its first forays into promotional content in recent months, YouTube has featured film trailers, music videos and contests encouraging user participation. “I don’t think pre-roll as people know it today will be successful in this community,” said Julie Supan, YouTube’s senior director of marketing.

One online video startup, TurnHere.com, hopes to entice viewers with informational content. The site is amassing short videos of hundreds of neighborhoods, which provide a snapshot of life. It will also include sponsor videos, much like Google places ads next to search results. “Pre-roll is a little alienating on the Internet,” said Bradley Inman, the firm’s CEO. “We’re trying to see if there are other ways of advertising that are creative and very complementary.”

For such user-initiated models to work, ad creative will need to be much different from TV spots, said Tim Hanlon, svp of ventures at Publicis Groupe’s Denuo. “The explosion of video isn’t about replicating TV,” he said. “The interruptive model is going to melt into something much more acceptable [to] the consumer, the media company and the advertiser.”

Instead of having a handful of executions, advertisers will be able to test dozens geared to specific audiences, predicts Patrick Keane, head of sales strategy at Google. Inman sees “authenticity,” rather than slick TV-like spots, being key to getting Web audiences to engage.

“There’s a huge amount of experimentation,” said Doug McFarland, North America gm of Eyeblaster, a firm that helps agencies run Web video campaigns. “Do we know the model that’s going to work? As an industry, I’d say no.”