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Setting the Stage for Six-Second Success

 The potential of “unskippable” micro-ads on TV is pretty undeniable. Ever since Fox borrowed a page from the online app world’s playbook and launched six-second spots on its “Teen Choice” awards last August, interest in the format has been exploding. Fox followed up with short ads in its World Series and NFL programming, AMC attached the format to new “Walking Dead” episodes and NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage included a series of the mini spots. And that’s only a sampling of recent debuts.

But this slew of six-second ads is not the first time TV has experimented with alternate-length formats. It is, however, the first time they’ve earned favor as strategic additions to the marketing mix rather than grabs for attention. After the World Series, for example, AdAge reported that T-Mobile’s six-second spots, which aired in the double-box format during breaks in play, were twice as effective in recall and likability as the brand’s standard ads in prime-time programming. Facebook and Google, which have been at the micro-ad game longer, report similar engagement benefits.

All the enthusiasm for the new wave of alternate-length ads is breeding an equal measure of questions about how to get the format right without falling prey to the earlier iteration’s gimmickry. Here are some questions marketers should be asking themselves before incorporating the format into the mix.

What’s the (Singular) Focus?
Creatives throughout the industry agree that though challenging, it’s very doable to tell a compelling story in six seconds. Emphasis on “a”. Brands that try to squeeze all their message points or achieve multiple objectives risk having the spots come off as video graffiti. T-Mobile didn’t try to explain its entire value proposition to consumers in its six-second spots; instead it opted to promote its corporate citizenship by highlighting its hurricane relief efforts. And Hefty, in a clever online campaign, used the innovative format to announce its new plastic party cups—and differentiate itself from more established competitors. In other words, successful six-minute ads aren’t fun-size version of standard 15-, 30- or 60- second spots but a fresh way to convey a single chapter of a brand’s story.

What’s the Frequency?
And while single chapters can certainly stand on their own at times, serialized narratives pack a bigger punch and that’s where six-second spots can really amp up their impact, according to Bryan Noguchi, a media director at Caffelli who examines the value proposition of micro-ads in a recent piece in AdExchanger. Initially a six-minute skeptic, Noguchi writes that Toyota’s six-minute Start Your Impossible series on mobility during the Winter Olympics convinced him that with frequent airings, the short spots develop long legs. “Frequency becomes the impact that the truncated length imperils,” he writes, taking care to differentiate frequency from mere repetition, which risks annoying and alienating consumers.

What’s the Investment Rationale?
It’s easy to assume six-seconds ads would offer a bargain route to TV’s big reach, but when you consider the importance of frequency and variety to overall impact, as well as the fact that some networks (Fox) are at present reportedly charging the same rates for six-second as 15-second spots, micro-ads have to be viewed as an innovative way of reaching fragmented and distracted consumers rather than a cheap one. In fact, as the AdAge coverage of T-Mobile’s World Series ads noted, the success of the six-second spots was buttressed by other factors, including traditional length TV ads as well as those in the digital sphere. In other words, as we’ve written in earlier coverage about this format, six-seconds are a complement to other advertising efforts — not a substitute for them. While they do in some cases offer potential cost savings (especially if a brand already has short digital ad content that can be repurposed for a short spot TV), the investment rationale is better calculated by considering six-second spots as another means of telling a powerful story, reaching more consumers in an increasingly fragmented market and capitalizing on a new opportunity for attracting ever-distracted consumers.