Our lives revolve around choice. You chose what to wear today. You chose what to eat for breakfast. You chose how to go to work. You chose to visit this site and read this article.
Choice permeates all of our decisions, from the mundane -- like choosing to order the pasta bolognese -- to the extraordinary -- like choosing whom to marry.
Choice is better
Obviously, being able to make a choice is better than being forced to do something. In a research study conducted by choice expert and Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar, American children who chose which color marker to use and which anagram to complete performed 250 percent better than the children who were told what to do. In another study conducted by Iyengar, people who chose which yogurt to taste ate more and valued the yogurt one dollar higher than those who were told which flavor to eat. Iyengar's research also shows that employees who believe they have more choice score higher on metrics of motivation, satisfaction, and performance.
But if this is the case, and choice is better than forced, why haven't advertisers tapped into consumer choice? Why not let consumers be consumers and let them choose?
A history of borrowed engagement and broadcast
Advertising has worked on the principles of borrowed engagement and broadcast for millennia. It goes back to the Egyptians, who would broadcast messaging through wall posters. The Romans used town criers to belt out ads for local merchants after announcing news from the front lines. The first print ads, broadcasting messaging in weekly magazines for books and medicine, came out of Europe in the 17th century.
And so it's been throughout the history of advertising -- advertisers have been borrowing our engagement and attention from what seems like every imaginable source to broadcast their messaging. But you can't blame them for this approach. Until a few years ago, their options were limited. For example, in television, the broadcast model works. We watch American Idol. Advertisers borrow our engagement from the show to tell us about their products. It makes sense.
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Advertisers have adopted the broadcast approach for online video as well. It comes in the form of pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll advertising. These ads borrow our engagement before and during our favorite shows, movies, and cat videos. They've doubled across premium sites like FOX and NBC in the past year.
The problem with the broadcast model in online video
The problem with the broadcast model in online video is that, unlike other media, choice is available to consumers in online video. As we saw with the Egyptians, Romans, and American Idol, the broadcast model works in specific contexts, namely where choice isn't an option. But in online video, specifically social video, consumers can choose the ads they watch. Chief strategy and innovation officer of VivaKi, Rishad Tobaccowala, calls this availability of choice and the empowerment of consumers "the people's network."
Social video advertising: The place for consumer choice
Audiences can choose to watch branded content across sites like YouTube, Metacafe, DailyMotion, Yahoo, MySpace, and hundreds of others. They can visit these sites across a number of devices, from their computer, to their smartphone, tablet, and set-top box. When audiences choose to watch content related to brands, they can copy, mix, mash, and repost these ads across the web. They can share them with their friends and family, and blast them across Facebook and Twitter. They can embed ads into their blogs and personal websites. They can comment and rate the ads as well. For the first time, a type of advertising has conversation and sharing built in.
This social activity -- sharing with friends and family, embedding on personal blogs and social media, etc. -- creates earned media, or endorsed brand reach.
The combination of video ads and social activity has come to be known as social video advertising. Social video advertising is one of the fastest growing advertising segments today, if not the fastest: It grew more than 900 percent more than search and display advertising in 2010, and more than 2,000 percent more than television for Super Bowl 2011.
This rapid growth has created intense competition among social video advertisers. The Ad Age Viral Video Chart, powered by Visible Measures, features the most-viewed -- user-initiated (i.e., chosen) -- ads of the week. Since the chart's premier in March 2009, the threshold to make 10th place has increased more than 400 percent. Thresholds for the Variety Top 10 Online Film Trailers Choice, also powered by Visible Measures, have increased more than 110 percent since its inception.
The revolution of choice is now
Ironically, the emergence and rapid growth of social video advertising gives advertisers a choice. Do they continue with the broadcast model and continue pouring money into pre-roll and other forced formats? Or, do they shift gears and try to capture audience choice in social video advertising?
Response from the industry seems to indicate that a shift is already underway. Just last month, TED announced the winners of its Ads Worth Spreading contest, a contest "seeking to reverse the trend of online ads being aggressively forced on users." In December, YouTube announced an ad format called TrueView Video Ads, which "gives viewers choice and control over which advertiser's message they want to see and when." Last year, VivaKi launched The Pool, which has sponsored an ad format that gives audiences the choice of which ad they want to watch before video content. And cost-per-view pricing has been submitted to the IAB for consideration as a standard option for pricing video advertising.
You can also do your own research: Google "how to make a viral video" to see how pervasive the idea of virality is today. What these seemingly endless articles and blog posts are talking about is how to capture audience choice for video. Or check out the Viral Ad Chart each week just to see how ubiquitous and innovative viral campaigns are becoming. In the end, "viral" is simply a manifestation of consumer choice.
When audiences choose, advertisers win
Beyond professor Iyengar's studies, industry research on choice-based ads has begun to emerge. Research from The Pool indicates that when audiences choose which ad they watch -- as opposed to being forced to watch a pre-roll advertisement -- brands lift metrics increase between 300 percent and 450 percent. Enabling consumers to choose advertising also allows them to choose a brand early on in the marketing funnel, which can help them become more accustomed to choosing a specific brand overall, a critical behavior when shopping at the grocery store, mall, Amazon, etc.
A renaissance in advertising
Advertisers are gradually catching on to the idea of choice. They're beginning to understand that when audiences choose which ads they watch, the ads need to be good to be chosen. This has created a quality war across the advertising industry. The result is a renaissance in advertising.
Not that there haven't been great ads before -- there were plenty of great ads last century. The difference now is that, with social video advertising, we choose the ads we watch.
Brian Shin is CEO and founder of Visible Measures. Matt Fiorentino is director of marketing at Viewable Media.
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