Seeing the same streaming ads over and over? There’s a fix for that

“Frequency caps” are supposed to solve this problem—but it’s complicated.
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· 6 min read

Ever feel like you’re seeing the same commercial on streaming platforms over and over and over again?

No, you haven’t lost your mind. Repetitive ads, especially on streaming platforms, are a noticeable nuisance for anyone streaming shows on an app or connected TV. It’s a known issue and it’s bad for business, as viewers associate the ads with frustration.

“It pisses them off and it’s wasteful, too,” Renee Whittingstall, SVP and managing partner of digital investment and innovation at UM, told Marketing Brew. “You want your consumers to have a good experience, and nobody wants to turn on their favorite show and see the same ad at every ad break.”

So the industry has turned tofrequency caps, a fancy term for limits placed on how often viewers see a particular ad. As streaming platforms rake in more and more ad $$, talks around frequency caps have become “heightened,” Whittingstall told us, especially during the upfronts.

“It’s becoming a more common conversation,” she said, adding that “platforms are more open to allowing custom frequency caps across brands.”

🎯 Practice

Frequency can depend on whom you’re targeting. If a brand wants to reach any adult between the ages of 25 and 54 in the US, “you’re never going to run into a frequency problem,” Talia Arnold, head of media strategy and planning at Exverus Media, which buys inventory across platforms like Hulu and Roku, told us.

On the flip side, if you’re a marketer targeting viewers on IMDb TV who have purchased instant coffee in the past 30 days, you’re restricting your demographic parameters. If that marketer is solely focused on impressions, they could hit the same person with the same ad repeatedly—and never sell any more Folgers.

  • Research shows an inverse relationship between ad frequency and effectiveness. An analysis of TV campaigns by Simulmedia found that seeing an ad between six and 10 times made people 4.1% less likely to make a purchase than those who saw it between two and five times.
  • Nielsen says five to nine times “is the optimal range” to improve “overall brand lift” for a digital ad campaign.

Most platforms will establish a set number of times they'll run a particular ad unless you ask them to change it—“They always tend to be higher than what our clients want,” said Whittingstall.

  • Tubi, the streamer owned by Fox Corporation, has an ad cap of two per hour and five per day.
  • Hulu’s standard is two per hour, four per day, and 25 per week, Lisa Valentino, EVP of client and brand solutions for Disney advertising sales, told Marketing Brew. The company said its caps can be tightened, but not loosened.
  • “We need to account for different streaming behavior. We know that bingeing is a behavior…it's not enough to have a frequency per hour,” Valentino explained. “We really looked at it by the hour, by day, and by week to ensure that we're optimizing the experience.”

Brief aside: For live sports or other valuable inventory that’s guaranteed to earn eyeballs, a brand might have exclusive rights to streaming inventory—for instance, AB InBev is the exclusive alcohol advertiser at the Super Bowl. Because of these deals, one advertiser might make appearances more often than others, and the extra restrictions become something of a competitive advantage (until audiences get sick of seeing the same commercial).

Not so simple

Even with caps in place, media buyers don’t always buy inventory from the same source.

For example, to buy Hulu inventory:

  • A buyer could go directly to Disney, Hulu’s owner.
  • Or they could buy from a network like NBC that streams shows on Hulu.
  • Or from a platform like Roku—which is given a chunk of Hulu’s inventory for its own platform.
  • Or from a programmatic buyer like MiQ, which can purchase Hulu inventory on behalf of a brand or agency.
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Mark Rotblat, chief revenue officer at Tubi, told Marketing Brew that as a result, a viewer could end up seeing the same ad six ads times within an hour—two from the streamer, two from the device, and two from the content owner. “That’s where the problem exists,” he said. “Those standards don’t mean anything if you can’t control for them.” According to a survey of Tubi’s partners, two in five said they would invest more in streaming if they could better manage ad frequency.

“Each of these [platforms] very much says they control their own sandbox, and they do, but their sandbox is anywhere [from] the low end of 10% to the high end of 50% of the inventory,” Mohammad Chughtai, head of advanced TV at MiQ, told us.

And with so many different players, it can be difficult for buyers to set up guardrails. “Hulu and all these providers always talk about the customer experience, and they monitor these things, but the reality is that they’re not that good at it,” Exverus’s Arnold said. “They're going to serve the ads that are paying the most [highest CPMs] and that are the closest to [the] end of a campaign run.

Disney’s Valentino said Hulu has a “very robust, intelligent process internally in terms of checks and balances to our ad platforms team, and we are constantly analyzing our performance.”

A solve

Some companies are leaning on technology to solve the issues that come with frequency capping. Take Tubi, which says it’s solved the riddle with a proprietary Advanced Frequency Management tool (fun!) that blocks ads that run too frequently. It works by tracking and identifying a media file in real time to see whether it’s coming in from a different channel; in a case study, Tubi said the tool cut down frequency by 366% for an insurance brand.

Another potential solution? Don’t run so many commercials. Whittingstall said platforms like Hulu and Roku “can be really innovative” when it comes to how brands reach viewers. “They want to create new ad platforms, and not just sell 15-second or 30-second spots. They want engaging experiences,” she said.

Most streaming platforms give advertisers several ways to reach audiences outside standard commercial breaks. They include shoppable inventory, entire homepage takeovers, ads during pause breaks, and even sponsored ad-free experiences.

“Our role is to offer the best user experience and to recognize that the streaming environment is a different environment than the linear TV environment,” Valentino concluded.

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