The 30-second spot will be the ruin of those in local media who shift this old television workhorse to the Web. More and more of these interminably lengthy “commercials” are finding their way to the Web, attached to the front end of a short form video.
ESPN.com used to be a favorite online stomping ground for me, because they only ran ads of 15-seconds or less — but even they are taking the easy money that comes with shifting an ad created for one medium to block the passage to a video being sought in another. Local media companies rarely run anything less than 30 seconds, because that’s what advertisers want to buy.
Make no mistake. This is a most grave error, for it spits in the face of the one who has clicked through to watch a short video. Even the Interactive Advertising Bureau — that maker and keeper of online ad “standards” — sees the problem with 30-second spots:
15 seconds appears to be an optimal length for digital video creative in the pre-roll position. 5-second spots had trouble conveying a message; while 30-second spots risked turning off a viewer waiting to watch something else.
This debate over the length of pre-rolls isn’t new. Nearly 10 years ago, I read an article in MediaDailyNews about preroll ads. The reporter had interviewed people from Microsoft (MSN provided the early expertise in online video) who said that the optimum length for a preroll ad was “7 or 12 seconds.” After that, people expressed their displeasure by shutting down the video. I thought this was great advice, so I published a piece for my blog that linked back to the source. The next day, the source article had been changed to “15 or 30 seconds.” I was told that Microsoft had demanded the change. It took me several days to track down the right people at MSN, but when I did, I was told that higher ups changed it because advertisers would only pay for 15-30 second ads. I was outraged, but I was alone.
Time, according to J. Walter Thompson CEO Bob Jeffrey, is the new currency, and every second counts. Why do people fast-forward through commercials with a DVR? Because a full one-third of prime time is nothing but marketing. Who wants to give up that much of their precious time to be bombarded with ads? Nobody in their right mind. But the assumption here by marketers is that people will tolerate ads in order to watch their favorite shows.
Toleration is a concept that local TV companies have used to justify just about anything. John Locke, however, taught us that the single, most important freedom necessary for toleration is the power to say no — for without the power of intolerance, tolerance is merely a mask for totalitarian orders. If I cannot say “I refuse to tolerate,” then toleration is impossible. If I have not the power to say no, then my yes is artificial and a fraud. I have no choice in the matter, and my approval is nothing more than an act of submission to an authority.
So when advertising studies reveal that local viewers will “tolerate” multi-minute bundles of 30-second spots, they are defrauding the people who pay to have their messages presented, because it’s not toleration at all. When given the chance to “opt out,” the evidence from studies about remote control devices and DVRs strongly suggests they’d rather not. I realize fully that some “studies” suggest otherwise, but these have always been sponsored by someone with a serious dog in the fight. I would like to see a serious, independent examination of the subject.
Now, let’s look at the Web, where tolerance is even more of a reality. Why? Because viewers — who already vote with their clickers and their DVRs over-the-air — can simply dump out of a pre-roll or any other kind of time-consuming interruption. My own experience with MSN those many years ago is just the tip of the iceberg in how far those with something to lose will go to defend the status quo. As Clay Shirky says: “Institutions will always try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” So it is with Madison Avenue.
Even YouTube, the biggest online video purveyor of all, gives customers the chance to skip its TrueView ads after 5 seconds. Advertisers aren’t charged unless people view at least 30 seconds of such ads. There is debate about how many people actually watch the entire TrueView prerolls and how many people drop out, and, as usual, it all depends on who’s counting.
It stands to reason that there’s a market for 7- and 12-second video ads, because the original research began with customers. However, it has to be brought about by local publishers, because the ad industry won’t go there. Local advertising is sold, not bought, and the face-to-face value proposition of local media sales people makes it doable. Call me a nut, but if I knew that a certain source only ran 7- or 12-second prerolls, I’d spend all my video viewing time there. There is no video that I need to see badly enough to sit through a 30-second preroll, and I know I’m not alone.
In the wake of a record year for both revenue and profit in 2012, it’s hard to convince local broadcasters that they need to think differently online. We’re like the little boy whistling in the dark pretending that we can simply shift television “spots” to the Web. This is a terrific opportunity for others to disrupt local TV’s dominance in the local video advertising business.
If I were in charge of sales for a local or hyperlocal media provider, I’d carefully consider MSN’s pioneering research, and start experimenting with the making and selling of 7- and 12-second ads for online video.
Terry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.