Behind the Scenes on HBO Max’s New Ad Formats Designed to Cut Down on Interruptions
With financial concerns increasing for many consumers, ad-supported streaming services are becoming an increasingly important aspect of Americans' entertainment diet. As free, ad-supported TV (FAST) and no-cost ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) services continue to establish a sizeable share of the streaming market, many of the legacy, premium subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) streamers are bringing cost-friendly options to their platforms as well.
While Netflix and Disney+ both plan to launch ad-supported tiers later in 2022, HBO Max has just entered its second year providing an AVOD option to customers, and on Friday, the prestige streamer announced a new suite of advertising options designed to make the viewing experience more enjoyable for customers and the advertising experience more impactful for brands.
“If we think about why advertisers come to the most culturally relevant content on any service out there, it’s ultimately for the emotive response that these stories, characters, and personalities create to be projected under their brands,” HBO Max’s SVP for product management Julian Franco told The Streamable. “So what we try to do is find ways to consistently bring them as close to that content as possible.”
HBO Max has begun rolling out three new advertising products designed specifically to do that: Pause Ads, Sequential Stories, and an expanded Brand Block Ad suite. The Pause Ads are exactly as they sound, static ads that will appear on the screen while content is paused. Unlike on other platforms, on which ads take over the full screen and work almost like a screensaver, HBO Max’s approach is different for this product.
Instead of a full-screen takeover, users will still see the content that they have been watching, but the brand’s ad will appear over top in order to minimize the disruption to storytelling.
“We take the content and we send it slightly to the background using light and color,” Franco said. “And then we bring the brand into the foreground while still very adjacent and close to the content in a way that ultimately … allows us to deliver even fewer ads in-stream.”
By integrating ads into paused content, HBO Max is able to minimize the total number of disruptions in the show or movie, staying true to the pledge that the service made when it launched its ad-supported version last June to keep ads under four minutes per hour.
“I think one of the things that we’re most excited about with Pause Ads is that it doesn’t cut into viewing time,” Warner Bros. Discovery’s head of digital ad sales Ryan Gould said. “Then when that customer comes back to that film or that show, what they’ll get is less commercials here than anywhere else. And they remember the brands that deliver those experiences and that’s really powerful.”
“Our bigger mission,” Franco added, “is to make sure that we distribute stories out into the world that shape culture. What that means is you need to finish those stories, you need to finish that episode, you need to finish that season, you have to complete that series, and what we don’t want you to do is stop watching. So, we want to be able to remind folks what was there and what they were watching and have them reengage with it.”
Similarly, HBO Max is also introducing another ad format that keeps viewers engaged with the programming while also providing a unique opportunity for brands to communicate their value in a creative way that isn’t often afforded to them in traditional advertising environments. Sequential Stories allows advertisers to purposefully craft a longer message to consumers throughout the entire span of an episode or film. This product is designed to give brands a place to tell a story in a unique way while keeping consumers immersed in the world of storytelling.
How it will work is that a single brand will own all of the ad spots during a single piece of content, but rather than the company repeating the same 15 to 30-second commercial in all of the placements, the companies will begin a narrative in the pre-roll position and then continue that story throughout the course of the program.
Sequential Stories is designed to minimize the ad load while also keeping viewers engaged with a unique ad story throughout the experience. Brands can either craft these serialized ads on their own, or House of Max — HBO Max’s in-house brand studio — can develop the custom sequential creative to help drive more impact and relevance.
“What they’re able to do is take a longer format message and … tell a story in sections,” Franco said. “The first act happens at the beginning, the second act of a story is told in that first break, and the third and final act may be told in that next break. And in what would traditionally be a half-hour of programming, the consumer actually would get a storyline of the [advertising] content.”
The goals behind HBO Max’s new advertising products are to make the ads as beneficial for the brands as possible while also making them as unobtrusive for consumers as they can be. By making the ads more impactful for the advertisers, it allows the streamer to charge more for the space, in turn keeping the number of commercial interruptions at a minimum for viewers, thus increasing their satisfaction with the service.
“We’re super fortunate and excited to bring opportunities into market that essentially add more value and less [ad] time,” Gould said. “It’s a win-win right? It works for us, it works for our clients, but I think most importantly, it works for our consumers … We see a tremendous opportunity to tell stories on behalf of brands and we’re super excited to align brand-storytelling alongside the most culturally relevant content in the world.”
The third and final advertising change that HBO Max is rolling out on Friday is an expansion of a product that the streamer has been using since launching their AVOD option last summer. When the service began incorporating ads in June 2021, one of the products available to advertisers was a Brand Block. This option allowed one advertiser to run a spot in front of a specific handful of movies and then after the ad, the content would play uninterrupted.
Now, HBO Max is adding more films, HBO Max Original Series, and shows from the service’s library to the mix, meaning that viewers will have the opportunity to watch even more of the platform’s content without breaks.
Additionally, HBO Max will now allow studios to bring viewers a theatrical experience extremely recognizable to traditional movie-going audiences, just from the comfort of their own homes. This Brand Block Preview program will provide a front-loaded movie trailer tailored to line up with the specific movie being viewed. Then, after the trailer, the film will play with no interruptions. Not only will this product be available exclusively to studio and entertainment partners, but Franco confirmed that HBO Max will run trailers for non-WBD films as well.
“When we think about our consumer and customer-focused approach, we realized that a lot of … the folks on the platform are looking for content,” he said. “They want to be in the forefront, they want to be watching what’s new, they want to be a part of that water cooler conversation, and we don’t believe that that means just talking about our movies.”
At launch, HBO Max viewers will be able to see the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” — which is being distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures — in front of select films. Since Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is available on the streamer, it is very possible that you might see the king of rock ‘n’ roll’s trailer before heading out to visit Leonardo DiCaprio in West Egg.
All of the new products that HBO Max is introducing on Friday are designed with one specific goal in mind: To make the viewing experience on the service as seamless and enjoyable as possible for consumers while also providing the best return on investment for advertisers. Franco noted that the customer satisfaction data that the streamer works off of indicates that not only does HBO Max’s AVOD service compare extremely favorably to other ad-supported streamers, but it also stacks up well with ad-free services.
“One of the things that we think about from an ad product perspective is having a relentless customer focus,” Franco said. “And, as we remind everybody here, that ‘customer’ includes both the consumer and the advertiser.”
HBO Max has two tiers, an ad-supported plan for $9.99 and ad-free plan for $14.99. HBO Max without ads also includes features like the ability to download offline and 4K streaming.
They also will get Max Originals that aren’t available to HBO channel subscribers, like “The Flight Attendant” (Kaley Cuoco), “Love Life” (Anna Kendrick), as well as reboots to “Sex In The City” and “Gossip Girl.”