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March 27, 2017

5 Ways to Make Good Pre-roll Ads (that people might actually watch)

Between the title and the first line, I’ve shown why you want to read this article, and it only took 5 seconds. If you have no interest in what you’ve seen so far, it’s likely you’re ready to leave.

This is the basic premise of a pre-roll—those annoying ads that play before the video you actually want to watch. You have to endure them for at least 5 seconds until you’re allowed to skip through. Because they are so easy to skip, pre-rolls have the highest standard of quality, custom-tailored to engage and delight us in such a short time, right?

Well, maybe not. Think of the last time you didn’t skip a pre-roll. Every day, I see terrible ads that have no chance at winning my engagement. It’s not because pre-roll is a bad medium. It’s because most ads aren’t engaging.

So, what does a good pre-roll look like? Here’s my favorite example of all-time, especially because of how low-budget it looks.

Not impressed? 91% of viewers watched the ad to the end, 7.1% clicked through, and app downloads increased by 75% during the campaign. Not bad for text and spinning burgers.

These are the results you care about. Anyone can buy impressions to bulk up a monthly report. But what you really want is engagement and, by extension, business results. I chose the Eat 24 video as an example because it proves that you don’t need a massive budget or an elaborate premise to be successful. Instead, success comes from a deep understanding of your audience. As a video production studio, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure this out, and here are our top five insights.

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Truth #1: Nobody wants pre-roll

We can all agree that, given a choice, we’d rather not watch pre-roll—or any commercials at all. Most ads lack any empathy on this point, enthusiastically getting in our faces and refusing to acknowledge that they’re forcibly invading our day. Pre-rolls are especially disruptive.

What to do about it: Focus on providing value, not copy

I know that sounds terribly cliché. But before you groan/close this article/burn my house down, look at the video above. It barely mentions anything about their actual service. Instead, it focuses on providing value—in this case, piquing our curiosity and entertaining us. It’s an ad that understands that people don’t like ads. The big question is not “How do I talk about myself?” It’s “How can I delight my audience in the short time I have?”

Truth #2: Pre-rolls are essentially 5 second videos

If you have a long, intricate message, pre-roll ads are not the place/time to share them. Years of terrible ads have trained us to immediately hammer that “skip” button.

What to do about it: Make 5-second videos

When creating your video, assume that you only have 5 seconds with your audience. Boil down and present the most basic version of your message, or entice the viewer to continue watching. We always recommend 15 seconds as the optimal length and strongly recommend against anything over 30 seconds.

Truth #3: Pre-rolls are not like TV ads

I see TV commercials run as pre-roll all the time, but the two mediums are completely different. When I’m watching TV, I’ve grown to expect 5-minute breaks every 15 minutes or so. But pre-roll ads can pop up at any time on any video, making them inherently more disruptive. My tolerance is much lower. I might sit through a 40-second ad on television, but I simply don’t have the same patience on my computer.

What to do about it: Never run traditional ads as pre-roll

This one is really simple. Rephrased, if you’re going to run pre-roll, make original pre-roll ads instead of recycling TV spots. Say what you want about “cross-platform promotion,” but traditional 30- or 60-second ads don’t work in this format.

Truth #4: Pre-roll is about generating a click, not an impression

One of the biggest advantages of pre-roll and digital campaigns is that your audience can directly interact with the ad by clicking. No need to list phone numbers or URLs. The next step is literally a finger tap away. Despite this massive advantage, too many pre-roll ads focus on long-form copy without a clear next step.

What to do about it: Focus your video on your call to action

Cut out all your messaging fat. Your pre-roll isn’t a presentation. It’s a tool to get people to click. Because you don’t have time for meaningful copy, everything about the video should be driving a CTA.

Truth #5: Pre-roll needs a supporting backend

After clicking a pre-roll, I’m amazed at how many times I’m dumped onto the company’s home page. Really? The pre-roll teased a free trial, and now I have to dig through the site to find the signup page? In most circumstances, I’ll balk at the extra effort and leave.

What to do about it: Build a complete pre-roll pathway

If pre-roll is the bait, then what comes after is the hook. Getting your audience to your domain is only the first step. Tailored landing pages are very important to turning clicks into conversions. Don’t waste a brilliant pre-roll by not having anything behind it.

Pre-roll can be tough. I’ve seen billion dollar companies completely fail to deliver effective content in this space. At the same time, we’re beginning to see improvement. Eat 24 saw massive success with a very small budget. What could you do with yours?

2017 Update:

While creating a good pre-roll ad is vitally important to getting eyes on your content, we’ve heard from a number of our readers that video quality isn’t the only defining factor of a good pre-roll ad. You also have to engage the right targeting options within YouTube to ensure your video is getting in front of the right audience as well!

As Convince & Convert points out in this post, many users know their way around targeting their ads to geographic regions, demographics, and specific languages – those are the easy ones – but the real value can be found in YouTube’s other targeting opportunities.

Topics and interests are the real goldmine for targeting viewers, as these help define when your video is shown in relation to what your prospects are already watching. But they are a bit different from one another:

  • Topics focus on what your prospects are watching right now. So if you provide dog grooming services, you’ll want to target your Topics around dog grooming videos. That way if someone is watching a video on how to trim their poodle, they’ll see your video offering to do it for them!
  • Interests are more broad, and allow you to target ads to users who are watching content similar, but not exactly the same as what they’re watching now. To use our dog grooming analogy again, you may target Interests around professional dog shows. People who love watching pampered pooches paraded around stadiums probably care about how their own pooch looks! But you can take Interests further, and target dog walking videos, and dog training videos as well; interests your target market cares about, but that are not directly related to dog grooming.

The tips above are still spot-on recommendations for making your pre-roll video successful, but don’t forget to adjust your targeting settings. Knowing that you want to target men and women that are 18+ and live in North America just isn’t good enough to be sure that your advertising dollars are well spent. Go deeper, and start showing the right videos to the right audience at the right time!

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Joe Lee

Joe Lee

Joe Lee is a Marketing Specialist at Epipheo. He works to explain, consult and learn everything about video and marketing. Read and watch more at

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