Video streaming has been universally available for well over a decade, which makes this a good time to examine how companies have used the technology to market and sell their products and services. Based upon what I've seen, six formats have proven effective:

1. Traditional Ads

These are television-style ads made available online. Like TV ads, they need to be short and sweet, because they usually interrupt or precede the content that the consumer wants to view.

Some websites also play traditional ads automatically in a sub-window on the page that the consumer wants to view. Some advertisers think their ads will be more effective if they can't be paused or muted.

Consumers hate this, however, which has resulted in numerous tools to disable such ads. Apple's new Macintosh operating system, in fact, now disables them by default.

There are four rules to make traditional ads effective online:

  1. They must be at least as entertaining as the content that the consumer wants to view.
  2. Their entertainment value must be obvious within the first 3 or 4 seconds.
  3. They shouldn't crutch on audio to get their message across. They must "do the job" even when muted.

Here's an example of a traditional 15 second ad that's gotten a little under half-a-million views in a little over a year. Note that it grabs the eye in the first few seconds and makes its case even when muted:

2. Extended Ads

Traditional ads, whether on commercial television or online, tend to be only 15 to 30 seconds long, for two reasons. First, advertisers pay for the time that it takes their ad to play, which encourages brevity. Second, consumers have limited tolerance for ads that intrude upon the flow of what they want to view.

However, if you post a promotional video on YouTube or any other streaming site, you're not paying for the time, which means your ad can gravitate to its most natural length.

Movie trailers are a good example of this. Trailers bought as ads are typically short teasers; full trailers (which people view intentionally online) are can be two or three minutes long.

The trick with extended ads is that they must be entertaining enough to attract viewers and hold their interest. Again, movie trailers are excellent examples of this.

Of course, it can be difficult to make some products interesting. Car companies seem to particularly struggle with this, as evidenced by how they recycle the same scenes, like a car zooming along a winding mountain road or the hip urban guy who has hot women checking him out because he's getting into his hip urban car.

The holy grail, of course, is to have your extended ad (or your full but shorter traditional ad) go viral. This usually requires making the ad about something other than the product. For example, this ad from retail outlet John Lewis that's gotten 7 million views in the past week (note how the brand is only revealed at the end):

3. Demonstrations

I covered product demonstration videos in detail in a previous column. In brief, demonstrations that effectively sell products or services always 1) tell a story of what the customer wants to accomplish and 2) always tell that story from the customer's viewpoint. Classic example? Steve Jobs's 2007 iPhone introduction:

4. Live Telethons

This is an old format for television (think QVC or The Shopping Channel) that's gravitated online with the advent of products like Facebook Live. I don't know much about this format because I would never watch anything even vaguely like this.  However, Wired magazine recently featured the Facebook Live telethons for My Mermaid Treasure as the wave of the future.

5. TED Talks

TED Talks-;crisp, short speeches-;remain popular online and, though it's not always obvious, their purpose is always to sell something, usually a longer speech or a consultancy. I've already posted the 10 TED Talks every entrepreneur should watch and 11 public speaking tips from the world's most popular TED Talks.  Plenty of good example there, but here's a favorite (not on those lists) on the subject of branding and marketing by the inimitable Morgan Spurlock.

6. Parodies

Technically, I suppose you could say that parodies are just a specific case of an extended commercial. However, because to be effective they must make fun of the seller and the seller's company, they're more "meta" than other videos.

Probably the most avid producer of such videos is The Onion, which releases branded parodies in the video landing page on its website.  However, my favorite parody video is one of the very first online parodies, produced way back in 2006 by (of all companies!) stodgy, old IBM:


What Doesn't Work

I suppose I should say something about what doesn't work: presentation videos. You know the ones I'm talking about... the slides with the voiceover.  Deadly boring, all of them. Avoid them like the proverbial plague.

Published on: Nov 16, 2017
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