3 Ways YouTube Pre-Roll Is Forcing Marketers to Rethink Video Advertising

By Kavi Guppta March 12th, 2015

There’s something about the disruptive pre-roll clips on YouTube that has always fascinated me. As a content creator, I’m starting to notice more and more how important YouTube’s pre-roll format is for determining which brands are successfully connecting with their customers and which brands are falling behind.

Advertisers are given fewer than five seconds on YouTube to convince the audience an ad is worth watching to the end before the viewer has an option to skip it—and as David Waterhouse pointed out, 94 percent of people skip pre-roll ads after that five-second mark.

But if the pre-roll format is encouraging viewers to skip commercials, how are brands transforming their content to capture that lost attention? How can something ignored by audiences still be useful to marketers?

Creative production, use of technology, and evolving views on audience relevance are all key for brands hoping to do a better job of connecting with audiences on YouTube.

Let’s take a closer look at the three areas where brands can step up their pre-roll content game.


The pre-roll format has shown that video content can no longer just be a static one-way pitch to the viewer to buy something. The content has to be much more immersive and play into the way YouTube users watch videos.

The majority of brands I’ve encountered through pre-rolls aren’t doing enough to really take advantage of the space they’ve paid for. They’re still uploading the same commercial that ran on television. They’re using the five-second window to shout “Wait, don’t press skip.” Or they’re trying to squeeze in as much information as possible and hope something sticks. All of these techniques are stale.

Still, there are some brands that have begun to produce more YouTube-centric creative video content.

“The level of creativity has certainly gone up,” said Michelle Costello, digital media and web video reporter for Adweek. “[The pre-roll] is making people more innovative with their video commercial content. And as a result, we’re seeing more creative works in the shorter format.”

For example, Travel Agency Flight Centre produced a series of “What If?” pre-roll ads that ask the rhetorical question “What if you didn’t skip this ad?” to the viewer. The pre-roll poses an impassioned idea that asks the audience to ponder the journey they could take—with Flight Centre—and then apologizes for interrupting the video.

Belgian’s Lotto organization challenged audiences to a staring contest during the pre-roll for a chance to win two tickets to “Tomorrowland,” a popular electronic festival.

And Digi Telecommunications released pre-rolls acknowledging the annoyance of the interruption before giving viewers something interesting to enjoy—a cute ballerina dancing or a cat lounging—while quickly promoting the brand’s services.

These are all great examples of playing to the format’s inherent weaknesses and turning them into strengths. Those who want to reap the benefits of creative pre-roll need to adapt to the format in similar ways.


In addition to the creative element of video content, pre-roll also offers marketers a chance to work in a variety of screen sizes and time constraints.

Therefore they should test content formats that connect with viewers on the go (shorter pre-roll videos) and viewers who are connecting on desktop devices (longer pre-roll videos). A pre-roll clip can be useless and unreasonable if an ad is longer than the 20-second viral clip the viewer is ultimately trying to watch.

Calls-to-action also play an important role in navigating the viewer through the advertising product. The link that takes the viewer away from YouTube needs to be more than just a boring old hyperlink to the brand’s website. It has to continue the visual experience to another video or an equally engaging article.

Once again, very few brands take advantage of these techniques.

Honda, with its recentOther Side” campaign, gave viewers the chance to control the Japanese carmaker’s advertising experience through calls-to-action. Viewers are shown a fast-paced 30-second pre-roll ad while message associated about the brand’s Type-R Civic Model flash on the screen. The final call-to-action encourages viewers to visit a branded website, integrated with YouTube, that allows audiences to toggle between two interactive digital experiences that take place in car.

The campaign’s UX is boosted by incredible design, and the brand might have driven even more awareness had the pre-roll been just as interactive as the website. The interactivity displayed in the longer ad is what separates it from your average TV advertisement. Moving forward, making use of these technological advantages will separate the skipped ads from the viewed ads.


In a September 2014 analysis of US Digital Video Ads, eMarketer claimed that “[m]uch of the time audiences spend with digital video in general is not useful for advertisers, such as clips that are either too short to include ads or not brand friendly, and both are attributes of many user-generated YouTube videos that get the most views.”

Too many marketers aren’t using the powerful data that can be accessed by YouTube or Google’s targeting technology. Instead, as eMarketer demonstrated, brands have been using the data to attach irrelevant ads to the platform’s most popular content. The majority of these commercials hope to catch someone’s attention, but the content rarely connects with the viewer’s actual interests in that moment.

To remedy this trend, brands need to improve the relevancy of their content in order to hook viewers. For example, a hardware brand could analyze engagement metrics for DIY home renovation videos to understand what types of projects are most popular and then create ads for products that are relevant to those tutorials. The insights will lead to a more relevant advertising experience that could potentially seduce the viewer away from the video they were planning to watch.

Another way to target the right audience involves collaborating with YouTubers who are already attracting audiences with compelling content. The hardware brand in the example above could team with influential video creators who focus on crafts and home repair to produce targeted video ads in line with the high quality content the YouTube influencer already provides. After all, YouTubers are now more popular than traditional celebrities among teens—so on YouTube pre-rolls, they could be incredibly relevant.

“When you normally watch TV, it’s the same ad that everyone sees across the U.S.,” Costello said. “But the differences with online video mean you can really get specific and reach that ideal user who wants to buy your brand. It’s supposed to lead to better brand perception.”

Pre-roll video will probably continue to struggle to some degree because of their skippable nature, but there’s no doubting that brands can get more people to pay attention to the medium. Focusing on creativity, technology, and relevancy may not revolutionize pre-roll clips, but it might just get a few more customers to keep watching. For now, that’s good enough.

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