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When Video Moves Online, What If No One Is Actually Watching?

Online video’s next big challenge may just be the bathroom break.

Evangelists of the new medium have long pointed to accountability as one of the big advantages of Internet video platforms. Every single viewer is trackable online, and publishers and ad buyers alike know exactly when someone tunes in or drops off. At least, that’s the theory. But in practice, tracking attention is becoming more and more challenging.

Connected devices bring services like Hulu Plus to the TV screen, making them feel more like TV. This leanback type of experience is usually hailed as a big step for online video, because it entices viewers to watch longer-form content and not switch from one short YouTube (s GOOG) clip to the next. However, with the lines between online services and traditional TV blurring, viewers may also adopt some of the same behaviors from the old medium and use ad interstitials for bathroom breaks and quick strolls to the fridge.

Viewers that consume online video on their computers may be even less attentive. We are all becoming increasingly comfortable with multitasking. Ad breaks can be used for checking email and IM conversations. Some users even minimize their browser permanently and simply use online video as a fancy radio replacement — a trend that becomes even more widespread as music videos gain in popularity on YouTube and elsewhere, and as dozens of mashups help to generate music video playlists for the perfect background soundtrack. Those users are still tracked as ad viewers, even though they never actually get to see any of the ads served to them.

The industry is slowly waking up to these issues, and some companies are turning to tech to address them. YuMe, a Redwood City-based, video ad network and advertising technology provider, rolled out a new version of its relevance engine Tuesday, which aims to detect in which context and on which device a video is displayed.

YuMe President Jayant Kadambi told me during a call last week that this includes the ability to track the exact coordinates of a player to see whether it’s embedded in a position where it can actually be seen by a viewer. YuMe won’t be serving up any ads if a video is playing while out of sight, or below the fold, as web publishers tend to say. That seems counter-intuitive for an ad network, admitted Kadambi: “Instead of reporting something, we are actually preventing it from being displayed.” However, YuMe hopes that this will help publishers to charge more for their ad spots.

There may be another, even more effective cure to the latent attention deficit disorder of the online audience: Short ad breaks. “We just fundamentally believe that everyone should lighten up,” said Hulu CEO Jason Kilar about ad loads during his NewTeeVee Live keynote last year. Kilar called the ad load on traditional television “out of balance,” and went on to say that Hulu shoots for having about half as much ad time per episode as regular TV networks. He also reminded his audience where these long ad breaks led to in the offline world: “A lot of people… tend to go DVR because the ad load is just so extremely large,” he said.

Websites like and the online properties of the TV networks don’t allow their viewers to skip ads — but the quest for view counts may have ignored the fact that the number of delivered streams don’t equal eyeballs or attention. Om Malik recently wrote about this on GigaOM:

“Many entrepreneurs and their backers don’t quite give the proper weight to “attention.” If a new startup can carve out time in our Facebook- and Twitter-dominated, CityVille-playing, Lady Gaga-listening, Rebecca-Black-video-sharing day, then it should really be the one to watch.”

The same could be said about videos, and ads in particular. In other words: You have to produce compelling content if you don’t want your audience to zone out. And you shouldn’t believe your message is connecting with viewers simply based on stats. Otherwise, online video will end up like plain old TV — running for five hours a day in the average U.S. household, with barely anyone paying attention.

Check out a video of Kilar’s keynote below:

Image courtesy of Flickr user smaedli.

One Response to “When Video Moves Online, What If No One Is Actually Watching?”

  1. This is a great point. I know that I pay zero attention to online ads, and it makes me feel sort of bad because maybe someday that will hurt the revenue of online media but for now it only makes sense. I use adblock plus in google chrome to avoid ads. For youtube video ads, I’m usually looking at something else and rarely watch the video anyway. Most of the time youtube is more of an audio resource for me while I look at other things.