The Internet provides access to copious free video content that people never would have dreamed of a few years ago. But it comes with a catch. Hulu lets you watch the latest episodes of your favorite TV shows, anytime, for weeks after they air. But interspersed throughout, they insert an increasing number of commercials, just like regular television. YouTube has tons of original web content, the latest hit pop songs and music videos and much, much more. But before you can watch your one-minute video, most times first you have to watch a 30-second ad.
It shouldn’t annoy people. This has always been the deal with free content, even since the early days of radio. If you want to watch it, you have to listen to messages from the people who sponsored it. But it annoys people nonetheless, and these ads are extremely unpopular.
Part of this is simply due to a misplaced sense of entitlement on the part of the audience. But part of it is also the advertisers’ fault. Most of them treat online ad interruptions the same as television commercial breaks: you watch part of the program, then watch a few ads, then watch more of the program, until the next ad break. Many advertisers will even show exactly the same ad during every single interruption, until even something the audience thought was clever and amusing has grown stale and is now a turn off. And through it all, they forget that the Internet has the potential for so much more.
Whereas television simply lets you sit and watch, Internet content is interactive. Hulu has begun taking advantage of this to some degree. Before a program begins, they’ll let you “choose your ad experience,” selecting, from a choice of two or three different products, the one that most interests you. You can even sometimes choose from differently themed ads for the same product: for instance, one featuring a family sitting around a breakfast table or another featuring friends camping in the wilderness. This is somewhat helpful, since if an audience has a choice in what they watch, they’ll be more receptive to the message—or at least less hostile to it.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Some advertisers are actually taking these necessary ads and turning them into desirable content. While you’re waiting for your program to load, you can play a short, branded flash game. Or watch the first half of an ad, then vote for what course of action the characters in it should take next.
Others use a series of ads to tell their own ongoing story. A character takes a journey with the product, or to try to find it, and each new program interruption features a different leg of the journey and sees them get closer and closer to their goal. Regular television has experimented with this format too, but online, when a whole program may have a single sponsor, it’s easier to get the message across and to get the audience involved in it.
That’s the key: getting the audience involved. It’s the key to content marketing, and when done right, it should be the key to online advertisements as well. When people are actively involved in a commercial, suddenly it’s not so annoying. They forget to stare at the countdown in the corner, ticking off the seconds until their program starts again or their next video plays, and instead they just enjoy the moment. They’ve gone from idle bystander to active participant, and that makes them care about the commercial. And by proxy, they care about the product, too.