As video content continues its phenomenal growth, savvy marketers are quickly grasping the epic opportunity that is pre-roll advertising.

For the uninitiated, pre-roll ads are the short (15-30 sec) branded videos that play immediately before you watch an online video.

And why do I call it an epic opportunity? Well, YouTube alone has over a billion users, reaching more 18-49 year olds than ANY cable network in the U.S. We’re talking about billions of video views every day – and, before almost every single one of those views, comes a perfect opportunity for advertisers to expose their message to an enormous audience.

Throw in the ability to target these viewers by age, gender, location, interests and more – and you’re looking at an advertising goldmine, here. It goes beyond YouTube, too, with Instagram and Twitter (among others) also expanding their focus on pre-roll.

Of course – as always – there are challenges for marketers.

With restrictions on length, and the need to overcome an ever-shrinking viewer attention span, pre-roll ads increasingly need to be clever, concise, professional, engaging and entertaining.

You have a 30 second (maximum) ‘blank canvas’ to tell your story, and sell yourself however you see fit. In truth, you have more like 5 seconds or less to snag your viewers attention.

And the fascinating thing is: there’s no rulebook.

So what’s your blueprint for success? Let’s take a look at some of the essential ingredients to great pre-rolls.

1. Empathy and Self-Awareness

The ‘Skip Ad’ button (and accompanying ‘5 second’ countdown) have been the source of much debate in advertising circles. Scott Donaton wrote an article for AdWeek earlier this year suggesting that advertisers should ‘Skip the ads, and start telling stories.

Don’t get in the way of what they want,” he wrote. “Be what they want.”

This argument pretty much overlooks the success that traditional advertising still enjoys, but equally, there’s an important message. There’s no denying that ads are almost universally regarded as less palatable to consumers in today’s age of ad blockers and ‘premium’ ad-free models.

And there’s little point fighting that. Sometimes, you have to acknowledge the fact – and have some fun with it. That’s why many brands choose to be empathetic, and self-aware when it comes to their pre-rolls.

Some of the best-loved pre-rolls actively call out the fact that the viewer isn’t primarily here to view an ad. And that’s ok – if they can just bear with it for a few seconds, there’s a message that might really interest them!

Take Burger King, for example. They made an attempt to understand exactly what their target audience would otherwise be doing on YouTube, so they could call it out within their pre-rolls. They produced 64 different video variations, all comedically panning pre-roll, contemplating what kind of content the viewer was really waiting to see.

Then we have the pre-roll for the new Volkswagen Beetle with DSG Tiptronic , which ‘automatically changes gears and skips ads for you,‘ as if it’s doing you some great favour by cutting the ad short. These ads are acknowledging the fact that modern consumers just aren’t that crazy about ads. Maybe they go too far, but they’re interesting examples to consider.

The bottom line is this: your audience isn’t here for your message – but that’s ok! It’s fine to poke some fun at it.

You know they can skip the ad, but it’s your job to make sure they don’t.

2. Conciseness

Ok, I’m not sure if ‘conciseness’ is even a word, but work with me here. Pre-rolls, of course, have to be punchy, and snappy – you’re talking about a matter of seconds in which you can grab your users attention.

But they don’t just have to be quick. They have to be clear. In simple terms: what the hell are you trying to say? You need to get there, ASAP. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to waste the first 5 seconds on a title/logo screen. Be direct, and don’t waste a nanosecond.

Geico’s ‘Unskippable’ pre-roll series is a perfect example of how to get to the point, fast. The core message of the ad is communicated in the first 5 seconds – the rest of the advert is pure comic relief. “Save 15% on your car insurance in 15 minutes.” Done! Even if you hit SKIP at the earliest possible opportunity – you’ll still have that takeaway.

I love these ads. They’re fantastic because they cut through all the fluff to deliver a crystal-clear message, in a way that’s light-hearted, creative and funny. Keep watching for the full video for some guaranteed LOLs.

3. Balance

Remember how Mary Poppins said, ‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?’ This saying could equally apply to pre-roll ads. A spoonful of self-deprecating humour will certainly help an ad go down (and it’s been done to masterful effect by the examples I cited earlier.)

But what about the marketers who are serving up all sugar without any medicine? I’m talking all entertainment, no brand message?

Like nonexistent medicine, it ‘tastes great’ – but it doesn’t have the desired effect.

Hey, I’m not into naming and shaming, but I’ve watched a LOT of pre-roll ads while researching this article – and, in some cases, I couldn’t tell you what company they were promoting. Videos that were jam-packed with cute puppies and ballerinas that raised a smile, but didn’t inspire me to take any action or feel any interest in what that company does.

Brands have become so preoccupied with avoiding being seen as ‘interruptive’ that they’re forgetting to actually get their message across. That’s somehow become secondary.

There’s no doubt that entertainment is important – it’s the little bit of magic that entices your viewer to want to watch.

But brand message is utterly indispensable. You have to find a way to weave the two together, or your campaign is probably going to flop.

Check out this example from insurance company – Oscar – one of my favourite pre-roll examples. In just 15 seconds, we see half a dozen funny scenarios that really raise a smile. It’s fun, colourful and sweet. But the message is there. “You never know when you’ll need health insurance – but when you do, there’s Oscar.” This is just beautiful in its simplicity, and – in my humble opinion – a perfect example of a pre-roll that balances entertainment with message.

4. Targeting

Pre-rolls give you an incredible opportunity to reach your target audience. The targeting options, particularly on YouTube, are incredibly granular. Not only can you filter by age and gender, but you can also target based on user interests – with all kinds of weird and wonderful categories available (what the heck is a ‘Beauty Maven’ anyway?)


This gives you a huge opportunity to get very targeted with your messaging. You can create different pre-rolls to apply to different sections of your audience, for example.

We live in the age of personalisation, where ‘one-size-fits-all’ doesn’t fit all anymore. The most successful campaigns (like the Burger King example I cited earlier) are designed to appeal to a specific target viewer, and the content is cleverly tailored to hold their interest.

Make content specific to your audience, and use targeting options to make sure they see it!

(Handy tip: YouTube pre-rolls are often called ‘TrueView’ campaigns.This guide will give you all the instructions you need to set up your campaign.)

5. Call-to-action

Getting a viewer to watch your whole ad is a great start. But, again – you don’t have much time. You can’t tell your viewer everything within 30 seconds. A great call-to-action will help move your viewer to the next step in the buyer journey, capitalising on the initial impact of your ad.

Ideally, ask for a small commitment – link them out to a landing page, point them to your website, or even ask them to subscribe to your channel. But make it clear specifically what they should do next!

Reed (a recruitment company based here in the UK) produced a fun pre-roll aimed at the procrastinators surfing the web during work time. “You’re procrastinating on the interweb because you hate your job. Click me!” This ticks nearly every box. It’s fun and quirky. It has a clear brand message. It’s relevant to the video the viewer is actually waiting to watch. It’s targeted. And it has a clear, specific call-to-action.

Closing Thoughts

Pre-rolls may have their naysayers, but you should take no notice: they are a phenomenal opportunity for brands of all sizes.

People act as if the ability to ‘skip’ ads is a new thing. It really isn’t. In fact, as long as I can remember, people have been skipping ads – it’s just that, back in the day, they changed the channel, left the room or turned the page.

The thing is, then – as now – people will always react favourably to great ads! That’s why we’ve been creating ads for decades, and will for decades more. Pre-rolls are no different.

You just need to a) understand the format, b) understand the modern consumer, and c) deliver the right ingredients for success.

The tips we’ve covered in this article are going to put you well on the way to pre-roll success. Check out our pre-roll creation service or get in touch if you’d like to discuss and get some ideas – and don’t forget to pick up our totally free Ultimate Guide to Creating the Perfect Explainer Video, which brings together all our expertise based on creating over 1,500 explainer videos and counting!