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Hulu to debut new ad formats in 2020 focused on letting users make choices, transact with advertisers

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Hulu is preparing to roll out new forms of advertising this year — one which will allow viewers to have more say in the ads that plays, and another that lets the viewer engage with the brand in question, either by getting information sent directly to their mobile phone or by using QR codes. In later months, Hulu is also considering digital product insertion to enhance the ad opportunities within its own original programming.

The new ad formats are the latest to join an already innovative lineup of ad experiences for Hulu, where the company hasn’t been hesitant about trying out new ideas to make ads more user-friendly. For example, Hulu last year introduced pause ads that pop up only when viewers take a break from streaming. And last month, it rolled out new ‘binge watch ads‘ that allow brands to sponsor ad-free episodes when Hulu detects that a viewer is binge-watching their way through a series.

The goal with these ad experiences is to find a way to make advertising less disruptive to the viewer. In 2020, Hulu is also focused on making its ads more engaging.

In the case of the forthcoming choice-based ads — a sort of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ for advertising — viewers will be able to select which ads from a brand they want to see. For example, users could choose to see ads about ski vacations from a travel company’s ad, or they could watch an ad about beach getaways. They could even pick which option they wanted with their remote.

In addition, Hulu is planning to roll out new transactional ads to help viewers engage with brands of interest. While 80% of viewing today takes place on the TV screen, most people don’t want to transact on the big screen — they’d rather use a computer or a mobile device. In this case, if the viewer wants more information from the advertiser, Hulu will be able to push that to their phone. This could be done by using the mobile phone number or email attached to a Hulu user’s account (given permission, of course), or viewers could hold up their phone to scan a QR code on the ad itself to take more immediate action.

The information the advertiser shares could include a link that takes the viewer right to a website — like a retailer’s shopping site, for example.

“This goes back to that viewer-first advertising promise: less disruptive, more engaging, and more functional. And it will really allow us to improve both the viewer experience and the advertiser’s ROI,” says Jeremy Helfand, VP and Head of Advertising Platforms at Hulu, in a conversation last week at CES.

The new ad formats will round four main themes Hulu is developing for its advertising experiences — situational, which is based on user behavior, as with pause and binge ads; choice-based, which allows the viewer to make a selection; transactional, where the viewer engages with the brand; and integrated storytelling, which is focused on integration sponsorships to blend the brand and content into a more seamless experience.

While Hulu has already dipped its toes into integrated storytelling with several ad experiences, the company is now thinking about the next steps for these ads, Helfand notes.

“We do think that there is a future where we’re able to fuse brands into the content, post-production,” he says. That is, Hulu could digitally insert product placements into its own programming.

“We’re excited about what’s coming up with cooking content on Hulu Kitchen. Theoretically, we could take a KitchenAid mixer and put it on the table even though it’s not there,” he adds, referring to Hulu’s plans for new original food series, including shows from Chrissy Teigen, David Chang, and Eater.

The technology to do this sort of digital ad insertion exists, but Hulu doesn’t know if it plans to develop its own in-house or acquire or partner with a company that already works in this space.

“You have to be able to read the metadata underneath the content as well as visually scan the content,” Helfand explains. “We’ve got a lot of content recognition work that’s already going on inside of Hulu which we use for lots of different reasons, not just for advertising. But there’s also a number of third parties — there’s a whole ad technology industry that’s emerging about being about to do things like that — and we’re looking at partners, as well,” he says.

One area that’s not being prioritized are the ad-supported downloads Hulu once promised. Instead of working out how to deliver offline viewing with ads included, Hulu is thinking about other models — like sponsored downloads, perhaps. But its focus for the near-term is on these newer forms of advertising, not on ad-supported downloads.

“We’re always thinking about the viewer experience and how do we deliver the very best viewer experience. And that obsession with the viewer extends to advertising. Consumers have a choice…They have a choice whether they want an ad-free experience or they want an ad-supported experience. And if they choose an ad-supported search experience, we want to make sure that that experience is just as good as an ad-free one,” says Helfand.

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