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Not So Fast: 2009 Online Video Advertising Year In Review

The economic downturn slowed video ad growth, while creatives reined in experimentation.

What happened in online video advertising in 2009? It depends on whom you ask. For the creatives that make the ads, 2009 was a flurry of activity, full of experiments in form and content. For the viewer, it passed uneventfully, with ads staying minimally invasive. Both assessments are correct: While advertising has been boldly experimental, the people creating the ads have been careful to avoid overdoing them and souring people on sponsored videos.

As the year started and ad makers were wondering where the young industry would go in 2009, Alan Schulman wrote for the Online Video Insider that creatives should offer nonlinear video ads where viewers choose different possible endings and commerce-driven online video programming where viewers could click objects or fashions they want to buy. Neither took off.

The most prescient look at 2009 came instead from a January Nielsen Media study sponsored by ABC.com, which found that doubling the commercial load in a full-length program had no effect on viewers’ overall satisfaction. The same study found that when viewers were exposed to four different brands during ad breaks instead of the same brand each time, their satisfaction increased. That cautiousness showed that execs were being careful not to show the same amount of commercials as on television, but they were still wondering where the line was between just enough and too much.

Cautiousness also came into play in February, which is when Time-Warner Cable began experimenting with bandwidth caps in Beaumont, Texas. Previously, the company had experimented with a trial metered usage test there, so now it was stepping up the program. While paying customers had little reason to love a bandwidth cap test, advertisers had even less. How much less would people watch when they were aware that their online bandwidth was limited and that one or two HD movies would put them over their monthly limit. And how do you get viewers to sit through video ads when they’re keenly aware of the usage meter creeping up?

Of course, when you talk ads in February, you’re mostly talking about the Super Bowl. A StreamingMedia.com article found that E*TRADE and Monster.com did the best job of getting people to their websites and getting them involved once they were there. A Hulu.com spot starring Alec Baldwin proved to be surprisingly controversial. In the ad, Baldwin joked that Hulu is an alien plot to turn human brains to gelatinous matter. While many laughed at the offbeat approach, others found it a missed opportunity to inform people about one of the leading online video destinations.

While some video ad experiments began in 2009, others ended. In March, Google announced it was ending the AdSense video unit project. This program let sites make money off of YouTube videos by hosting them on their sites. It was up to the site owner to decide what content the partner site should host. The program seemed to simply fade away due to lack of interest, as Google’s blog post about the announcement simply said they "haven’t had the impact we had hoped for." Sites could still feature YouTube content on their sites all they wanted using embed codes, but they were no longer able to generate income by doing so.

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