Ad Tech & Programmatic

Streamers keep leaning in on shoppable ads. Who will get it right?

During upfronts, the tech was on full display—but questions about effectiveness and which approach is best remain.
article cover

Amelia Kinsinger

5 min read

Since its founding in 1986, QVC’s on-air personalities have hawked stainless-steel steak knives and Tupperware with the same cozy-yet-ruthless refrain: act quickly, pick up the phone, and buy now.

If streamers have their way, that’ll soon be as easy as lifting the remote control.

Shoppable ads, which effectively turn television interfaces into shopping carts and let viewers purchase the products they see on screen, have followed in the footsteps of social commerce platforms, bringing the ease of e-commerce to the tube. While the ad format has been of interest for a few years, there were considerable advancements in the format unveiled during this year’s upfronts.

In May, Amazon announced upgrades to shoppable ad formats for Prime Video, including formats like carousel ads and interactive ads that allow users to shop from a pause screen. Warner Bros. Discovery also announced last month that it would bring a “seamless and integrated shopping experience” to Max.

  • The platforms join Peacock, Disney+, Samsung, LG, and Roku, which have all made strides to bring shopping experiences to TV.

In other words, the QVC of streaming is nigh—because if you’re going to be targeted with an ad for dog food or toilet paper, why not buy it right then and there?

One click away

Predictably, there is Big Tech to thank for the innovation, explained Lisa Herdman, SVP and executive director of national video investment and marketplace intelligence at the agency RPA. Google, Amazon, and Meta collapsed the marketing funnel, offering as many eyeballs as linear television (though not the same kind of eyeballs, broadcasters have argued) along with the ability to move products off of shelves.

For streamers, shoppable ads give them a new lever to pull for advertisers and show that they, too, can drive sales. Once a few platforms started testing this inventory, everyone else was bound to follow.

“It’s just about keeping up with the neighbors,” Herdman said.

Naturally, this kind of inventory has tended to work for retailers, clothing brands, DTC products, and even food delivery, she said. What’s still unknown, though, is the kind of programming that might work best for shoppable ads to run against, she said. If viewers are deeply engaged in, say, a cliffhanger ending during an episode of Only Murders in the Building, will they still shop?

“Maybe they don’t if it’s a drama, but maybe the research has shown that reality TV [works], it’s a little lighter, there may be a different demographic, and they will pause and go buy,” Herdman said. “I don’t think it won’t work. I think we need some time on it.”

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.

For now, though, shoppable ads are “rarely—if ever—worth the upcharge,” David Nyurenberg, associate director of digital video at Rain the Growth Agency, told Marketing Brew, though he noted that some platforms, like Amazon, aren’t charging advertisers extra for their shoppable features.

“We never see them perform,” he said.

“It’s a struggle”

Most shoppable ads work in one of two ways: viewers can either make the purchase with their remote, or they can use their phone, which usually involves a QR code.

Some retailers have used both, depending on the platform they’re advertising on. Walmart, for example, has run both shoppable ads with QR codes on Peacock and click-to-purchase ads on Roku, explained Marika Roque, chief innovation officer at Kerv Interactive, which makes technology that creates shoppable ads for platforms like Peacock, Paramount+, and Disney.

“There is a lack of standardization in that path to purchase,” Roque said.

But faith in the humble QR code is seeming to falter, in part because ads featuring the scannable images require viewers to find and pick up their phones, unlock them, and then successfully scan a code, usually within the span of 15 or 30 seconds.

“There’s too much friction,” David Zapletal, COO of Digital Remedy, explained. “The majority of time, it’s a struggle.”

When Roku began experimenting with shoppable ads, early tests showed that engagement increased more than 10x if viewers were prompted to use a remote instead of scanning a QR code, Peter Hamilton, director of ad innovation at Roku, said. “Remote control is still the primary way that people want to interact with their television.”

“Anyone can create a video ad and put a QR code in it, and we don’t have any issues with that—we just find that the performance is very low in that scenario,” he said, adding that roughly 1% of audiences that see a shoppable ad on Roku actually engage with it.

Figuring out the right path forward is a long time coming. In 2008, The New York Times noted that “interactive TV has been sort of a holy grail for Madison Avenue” for years. Meanwhile, Google has had e-commerce features dating back all the way to 2002, and these days, platforms like Instagram and TikTok are littered with e-commerce ads.

Even still, shoppable ads may still need time to mature, Hugh Scallon, SVP and head of video activation at VaynerMedia, told Marketing Brew.

“I think it’s still early days,” he said. “I hope TV doesn’t wind up looking like a Sunday shopper or all TV looks like QVC.”

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.