What if YouTube were able to swipe left on its brand-safety problem?
Sometime “in the coming months,” YouTube will let people swipe from one video to the next, the Google-owned video service announced on Tuesday.
In adopting a swipe-to-see interface a la Snapchat Stories and Instagram Stories, YouTube could also adopt those platforms’ interstitial ad placements that decouple ads from adjacent videos and could assuage advertisers concerned with being associated with controversial, or at least undesirable, videos.
That hypothetical makes a lot of assumptions, so let’s take a step back.
The problem with pre-roll ads
Pre-roll ads can be problematic. Since they preempt a video, they can be perceived as presenting a video, even if, thanks to audience-based ad targeting, there’s usually no relation between ad and video beyond the person watching them. That tenuous association is significant enough to shake advertisers when they find their ads attached to pro-terrorism videos, as happened on YouTube earlier this year. But for whatever reason, that association may not exist when an ad is not attached to a particular video but placed between videos.
Consider Instagram’s Story ads. When Instagram announced in January that it would slot ads between people’s Stories, I wondered whether brands would be cool with their ads appearing before or after anyone’s Story, which could be of anything, and if advertisers would be able to control what types of Stories their ads appear next to. I asked Instagram’s Director of Market Operations Jim Squires about it at the time. He said that, because the ads would appear between Stories, “people will view them as discrete posts and not related.” And while Facebook has rolled out controls for advertisers to block their mid-roll ads from appearing within certain categories of videos, those exclusion lists cannot be applied to Instagram Story campaigns.
Also consider Snapchat’s Story ads. Last week, Snapchat rolled out controls for advertisers to determine where exactly their Snap Ads may appear within the mobile app, including options to exclude ads from running against certain content categories, an acknowledgement that advertisers care about context. But, as with Instagram, those content category exclusions only apply to ads inserted into a Story, like the ones Snapchat curates or publishers produce, and not to the ads placed between people’s Stories.
Whether people associate pre-roll and mid-roll ads with their surrounding content and delineate between interstitial ads and their adjacent content can and should be debated. But let’s say both are true. If so, getting people to swipe from one video to the next and inserting ads between those videos — without the ad being attached to either video — could help to push YouTube past its brand-safety problem, or at least mitigate it from being the brand-safety problem in digital video to putting it on par with whatever brand-safety problems may be associated with ads within Snapchat’s and Instagram’s Stories feeds.
As I write this, I’m not entirely convinced people make these brand-to-content associations. But I also don’t buy that people think financial services brands are advocating bank robberies just because their commercials ran during a cable network’s airing of “Point Break.” And there’s still the question of whether YouTube will actually insert ads between videos when it rolls out the swipe-next gesture; I’ve inquired about that and am waiting to hear back from a YouTube spokesperson.
Reducing friction, increasing watch time
Even if YouTube doesn’t adopt these interstitial ads, its business could still receive a boost from the swipe-next gesture. YouTube’s north star metric is watch time; everything the company does is oriented around whether it will get people to spend more time watching videos, whether that’s viewing longer videos or more videos or all of the above. Being able to seamlessly switch from one video to the next removes the friction in finding something new to watch, in the same way that channel surfing can be preferable to scrolling through a programming guide. Instead of stopping a video and tapping back to YouTube’s home screen or typing in a search query to find another video, people can swipe to the next one. And if they don’t like it, they can swipe again and on and on. Maybe that’s too ChatRoulette-y to work, but it appears to be working for Instagram Stories, even if Snapchat did hide its auto-advance feature within Story Playlists last year.
Getting people to swipe from one video to the next would also pair well with YouTube’s new responsive video design that automatically resizes the video player based on each video’s formatting, which soon officially (finally) roll out. Instead of feeling a need to line up only horizontal videos or only vertical videos, YouTube could queue a mix of horizontal and vertical videos and have the player automatically resize when transitioning from one to the other.
Allowing people to seamlessly swipe from a traditional horizontal video to a vertical one would enable YouTube to consider all videos when queuing up the next one. It could also help YouTube get more vertical videos posted to its platform, especially from the celebrities and digital stars that used to make their home on YouTube (and still might) and now reside on Instagram and Snapchat. And since vertical videos are commonly associated with short-form platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, they may be more compact and better suited for entertaining people in the mood for swipe-through, not lean-back, viewing.
None of this matters if people don’t actually swipe from one video to the next. And there’s no guarantee they will. But, while YouTube may be commonly considered more of a video search engine than a video service, there’s reason to believe it can succeed in getting people to swipe from one video to the next.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed YouTube’s Director of Engineering Cristos Goodrow about how the service was working to extend viewers’ so-called “trails,” or those rabbit holes that people find themselves down when they start watching one video of ridiculous trick shots and an hour later are watching their tenth video breaking down how to ricochet a golf ball off a tree trunk. “Those drive a large portion of the viewership on YouTube, and making them better has contributed a lot to the overall increase in watch time on YouTube,” he said, referring to the suggested videos listed next to the video someone is watching, the same videos that YouTube will soon make only a swipe away.
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