Social Media

YouTube Pre-Roll Ad Length: Timing Is Everything

Shawn Forno 10.17.2019

Note: YouTube Pre-roll Ad Length, is the first installment in a 3-part Guide to YouTube Pre-roll Ads.

In-stream ads (aka “pre-roll” ads), are the ads that automatically play before YouTube videos. Viewers generally hate them. They’re intrusive and prevent viewers, however briefly, from seeing the content they’re looking for. However, when done right, YouTube pre-roll ads can be insanely effective. 

YouTube pre-roll ads offer brands a direct channel to a highly engaged, highly targeted audience on the largest video platform in the world. These viewers have no choice but to watch all or part of the advertisement to get to the content they really want to see. By timing your video correctly, you can make the most of that captive attention and take them from the top of the funnel straight to conversion with one click.

Pre-roll ads are marketing mad science, but the rewards for a finely-tuned pre-roll campaign are huge. In this first installment of our Complete Guide YouTube Pre-Roll Ads we ask: what is the best pre-roll ad length?

What’s the Best Length for YouTube Pre-roll Ads?

Short answer: The most effective YouTube pre-roll ad length is between 15-30 seconds. 20-seconds is the industry standard, but ads as short as 5-seconds and as long as one-minute are both good options as long as they’re engaging. However, there’s more to pre-roll ad success than that.

The long answer is that the length of your ad matters, but timing matters even more. Pre-roll ads that are tailored for YouTube can have a big impact despite the fact that users generally dislike watching them.

“Viewership rates for YouTube preroll ads are generally poor,” notes Tim Nudd from AdWeek. “Part of the problem is, very few marketers specifically tailor ads to pre-roll—they prefer simply to run their TV spots unchanged. But that ignores the fact that those first five seconds are crucial. If you don’t hook people then, you’ll lose them.”

There are three types of pre-roll ads on YouTube:

  • Bumpers are six second videos that viewers must watch before they can access the video.
  • Non-skippable ads are longer at 15-20 seconds. Much like traditional commercials, viewers much watch the full ad before the video.
  • Skippable ads are between 6 and 20 seconds long. Viewers must watch only the first five seconds before they can skip to the video they came to see.

The first and most important job of any pre-roll ad is to get viewers to pay attention. With the right hook, you can entice viewers past that infamous five-second “skip” mark. Geico does it better than anyone by making their videos all about timing, not just content.

Unskippable Pre-Roll Ads

Geico’s “Unskippable” pre-roll ad campaign from 2015 made it practically impossible to skip the content of the ads. How? Because the action only lasts five seconds, followed by a beautifully awkward freeze frame that leaves viewers wondering what to do next. The result—this video has more than 8 million views, and was named “2015 Ad of the Year” by AdWeek.

Geico embraces the fact that no one wants to watch a pre-roll ad, so they made one that’s funny, self-aware and effective. They poke fun at the format to increase engagement and build trust in the brand. 

These condensed commercials acknowledge that your time is valuable, so we’ll get to the pitch. Even Geico’s slogan “15-seconds can save you 15%” promises viewers that this will only take a second. It puts the viewers needs first. This refreshing honesty is engaging in a way that requires a minimal investment from the viewer. Win-win.

Engagement is essential for a successful pre-roll ad, but it’s not the most important factor for determining the ideal length of your pre-roll. Ideal pre-roll ad length is about two things:

  • Stretching your marketing budget
  • Maximizing conversions

How YouTube (Google) Charges for Pre-Roll Ads

YouTube offers thousands of ways to customize and display your ads including targeting options, audience options, and keyword options. Prices vary depending on your product and the videos you choose to advertise in front of. The important thing to remember is that you only pay for the ads that people actually watch. Google even says so on their pre-roll ad page:

If they skip your ad before 30 seconds (or the end), you don’t pay a penny.

Thanks to that important clause—”30 seconds (or the end)”—you can tweak the length of your pre-roll ad to get thousands of free impressions and maximize your marketing budget. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Create a 0:29 second video
  2. Set your daily budget in Adsense — $5 or $10,000 it doesn’t matter
  3. Choose your targeting type: keyword, topic, or placement targeting — keyword targeting is the most expensive option, followed by topic, than placement targeting.

A 29-second video is short enough to engage viewers past the 5-second skip mark, yet long enough for them to skip after they’ve seen enough. If viewers watch to the end, great, but the length incentivizes them to skip. If you front load your video with engaging content—like Geico—then let it linger, people will get the info they need, while still skipping ahead before you have to pay. The result? Free impressions. 

Another great example of this engagement curve comes from Reed.co.uk.

This pre-roll jumps out of the screen to immediately engage viewers, then lingers with a clickable link. Viewers will either click through and convert on the website, or skip ahead to their YouTube video. Either way, this pre-roll ad doesn’t cost Reed.co.uk a thing because it demands one of two desirable actions—conversion or skipping. 

Reed.co.uk is getting value when people click their link, and they’re not paying for viewers who get the message but still skip ahead. This lets Reed.co.uk roll that daily pre-roll budget into more plays, more conversion, and higher ROI for this single video.

But what if people watch your whole video, and you have to pay for the views? Great! The point of making your pre-roll ad is to get viewers to stick around and hear what you’re selling. It means that against all odds, your pre-roll ad is actually working.

Eat 24 took platform awareness to a whole new level by explicitly acknowledging the elephant int he room: advertising in expensive. The video asked viewers to skip to their content, so Eat 24 didn’t have to pay for the impression. The results were huge:

  • 91% of viewers watched the entire thing
  • 7.1% of viewers clicked through to the website (that’s really high)
  • Eat 24 averaged 75% more downloads during the weeks when this pre-roll campaign was running

This pre-roll generated over 600,000 views and increased conversion by 75% by simply asking people to “skip this ad.” Those are numbers you can’t argue with. The right pre-roll ad length (and pacing) can achieve fantastic results.

No one wants to watch a YouTube pre-roll ad, but if you create a short, engaging, self-aware ad you might just increase engagement, boost brand loyalty, and even get a few conversions. Imagine that.

Read Part 2: YouTube Pre-Roll Ad Targeting: How Everything Works  to learn how to target your pre-roll ads.

Shawn Forno

Shawn Forno is a massive Studio Ghibli fan who does content marketing. In that order. Find his other writing and extensive travel blogging here.

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