YouTube Pre-Roll Ad Length: Timing is Everything

Shawn Forno 06.05.2017

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

YouTube pre-roll ads are the worst. They’re disruptive, intrusive, and honestly nobody likes watching them. So why are they still around? Simple—they’re insanely effective.

YouTube pre-roll ads offer brands a direct (albeit annoying) channel to a highly engaged, highly targeted audience on the largest video platform in the world. Period. Viewers are glued to their screens counting down with that little 5-second timer in the corner so they can skip ahead to the video that they want to watch. This battle for attention is tense, but that’s kind of a good thing.

Pre-roll ads reach engaged viewers searching out the content that they care about. If you can position your brand in the right channels, you have a focused group of people that are ready to take action. Sure, that action is usually skipping your ad. No worries. If, however you can capture their attention with a great pre-roll ad—even for a moment—you can take viewers 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. This is the first installment in our Complete Guide YouTube Pre-Roll Ads—How do you find 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.

Pre-Roll Ad Engagement: Acknowledge the Elephant in the Room

“Viewership rates for YouTube preroll ads are generally poor,” notes Tim Nudd from AdWeek. “Part of the problem,” Nudd continues, “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.”

Geico is the king of the first five seconds of pre-roll. In fact,Geico’s “Unskippable” pre-roll ad campaign from 2015 made it practically impossible to skip the content of the ads. How? Because the “commercial” only lasts five seconds, followed by a beautifully awkward freeze frame that leaves viewers wondering, should I even skip this? The result—this video has more than 8 million views, and was dubbed “2015 Ad of the Year” by AdWeek.

Geico embraces the simple fact that no one wants to watch a pre-roll ad, so they made an insanely short one that saves you the trouble. It’s funny, self-aware and brutally effective. “Geico keeps making its pre-roll ads as entertaining as possible, mostly by acknowledging that you probably don’t want to watch them,” notes AdWeek again.

This self-awareness results in pre-rolls that poke fun at the format, and increase engagement, not to mention building trust in your brand.

Even Geico’s slogan “15-seconds can save you 15% on your car insurance” promises viewers that “this will only take a second, but it’s worth it.” Geico’s most recent suite of “condensed” pre-roll ads takes this mantra literally, and people love it. This Geico commercial, for example, has over 14 million views. I’ll repeat that: A 15-second insurance commercial has over 14 million views.

Each Geico pre-roll is exactly 15 seconds long, promising that if you blink, you’re gonna miss the joke. The first and most important job of any pre-roll ad is to entice viewers past that infamous five-second “skip” mark, and Geico does it better than anyone by making their videos all about timing, not just content.

At exactly the five second mark, the logo slides into frame and the wheels come off of what would otherwise be a normal “boring” commercial. The viewer can’t help but watch as the traditional commercial falls away and things start falling apart.

Pre-Roll Ad Length: Unskippable Ads

These condensed commercials acknowledge that your time is valuable, so we’ll get to the pitch. It puts the viewers needs first, and this refreshing honesty is engaging in a way that requires a minimal investment from the viewer. Win-win.

Seriously, watch that clip again. See how Geico encourages viewers to stick around past the skip point by starting at the action at exactly 0:05 seconds. Listen for the ad pitch at the end of the commercial. It’s subtle, but, effective. You just watched a commercial about renter’s insurance. I didn’t even know Geico offered renter’s insurance, but thanks to this hilarious pre-roll, I do now.

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

  • Stretching your marketing budget
  • Maximizing conversions for your CTA

How YouTube (Google) Charges for Pre-Roll Ads

pre-roll ad lengthYouTube 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, but pre-roll ads themselves are actually pretty easy to understand. In-stream ads (aka “pre-roll” ads), are the ads that automatically play before YouTube videos. They can be any length, but allow viewers to skip past them after five seconds.

The important thing to remember about pre-rolls ads 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.

How to Stretch Your Pre-Roll Ad Budget: 15-second Ads vs. 30-second Ads

pre-roll ad length

Stretching your pre-roll ad budget is simple:

  1. Create a 0:29 second video
  2. Set your daily budget in Adsense — $5 of $10,000 it doesn’t matter
  3. Choose between 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.

Bottomline: You get free impressions all the live long day.

Another great example of this engagement curve comes from

This pre-roll literally 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 a thing because it demands one of two desirable actions—conversion or not. is getting value when people click their link, and they’re not paying for viewers that skip ahead, even though they’ve seen the meat of the ad. This lets roll that daily pre-roll budget into more plays, more conversion, and higher ROI for this single video.

Pre-Roll Ad Length: Transparency Sells

“But what if people stick around and watch my video, and I have to pay for the views?” Are you kidding?! That’s the dream. The whole 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.

This 15-second pre-roll ad from Eat 24 is a great example of a pre-roll ad that acknowledges the elephant in the room by pointing out that your marketing budget is kind of small. The video even asks viewers to “skip this video” so Eat 24 doesn’t have to pay for it. The ad was a huge hit.

This pre-roll generated over 600,000 views, but more importantly, it increased conversion by 75%. By simply asking people to “skip this ad:

  • 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

Those are numbers you can’t argue with. The right pre-roll ad length can get fantastic results.

pre-roll ad length

Pre-Roll Ad Length: Timing is Everything

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—a pre-roll ad that gets results.

Contact us to find out how to make pre-roll ads that people actually watch.


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