Don’t touch that skip button!

This post is sponsored by Freeflow.

Back in the day, when a commercial would come on TV, we’d leap from our couches, dash to the kitchen for a sandwich and a Coke, and come tumbling back just as Ryan Seacrest’s dulcet voice brought us back to American Idol. Heaving a sigh of relief knowing we made it just in time for a mediocre cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart.

These days, we can skip ads at the click of a button or swipe of a finger. Doesn’t matter if it’s a two-minute YouTube ad or a 15-second Instagram Story ad. We decide if we want to see any more than five seconds of it. Usually, we don’t. 

Skipping ads has become a habit for the tech generation. A 2017 IPG Mediabrands study found that 76% of 11,000-plus consumers said they skip pre-roll ads because they have gotten used to the behaviour. This represents a substantial challenge for video advertisers who spend time and money shooting ads that are meant to engage and persuade, but might end up simply being skipped.

How, then, can creatives craft video ads that capture viewers almost instantly? What are the triggers that cause a consumer’s cursor to dart to the skip button? 

Having conferred with our resident video gurus here at Freeflow, we’ve boiled it down to two key tenets: attention and emotion.

Our attention spans are getting shorter. There are 101 other things to do with our time online, rather than watch ads. A pre-roll video ad, quite literally, interrupts our leisure or even our work. So, what encourages a viewer to pause for those critical first five seconds?

As consumers navigate the vast ocean of online content, an unpolished commercial promoting something we’ve heard a hundred times before (for example, how to make a million dollars in three days), simply doesn’t motivate us to pay attention.

Instead, viewers might get hooked by something that’s beautiful, or unconventional. Maybe something they already love, such as a familiar face, or a famous song. If your budget doesn’t allow for that, hook them with something funny, quirky or somehow unique. Ask them a meaningful question, or tell them a surprising fact.

It might seem obvious, the sort of things one can do to capture a viewer’s attention. Yet, each viewer falls in love with something different. For Nadira Zolfakur, a long-time producer here at Freeflow, a thoughtful question posed in the first few seconds always piques her interest. Jowell Tan, an editor, can instead be enamoured by complementary audio and visuals.

Once we’ve captured an audience’s attention, the next challenge is to show them why their attention isn’t being squandered. Whether it’s the work of our catchy music, stunning visuals, or quirky characters, the initial battle is won if our ad plays past the five-second countdown. But the war for audience engagement is just beginning, and Peggy Goh, head of directors at Freeflow, has a special trick up her sleeve – emotional engagement.

For her, this often takes the form of a story that resonates with viewers on an emotional or personal level, even when we don’t know who they are, or what they’re like. Our quest is always to craft narratives that are meaningful in general: this requires authenticity and sincerity. To this end, we try to approach video concepts with not just the product, but also the audience in mind.

Goh describes the challenge here as a delicate balance between considering our audience versus indulging ourselves as filmmakers. As creatives, it’s hard to give up our favourite shots or the choice of music we so carefully curated. But, as

Goh contends, sacrificing a gorgeous shot for one that’s plainer, but tells the story more authentically, is no sacrifice at all.

Of course, even successful methods vary by advertiser and product. In 2019, MARKETING-INTERACTIVE identified resounding themes that made the top ads unskippable: consumer tech giants sold the life-changing user experience of their new devices, government organisations and NGOs leaned on personal, true stories to tug at the heartstrings, while humorous ads won out by playing up unusual character coupling for laughs.

Though these top-shelf examples embody the emotional connection we describe, there is no die-hard formula or shortcut to hook and engage viewers, as veteran Freeflow director Jenny Ng said. She sees no substitute for creativity, research, as well as the effort and time needed to develop a great narrative. When all is said and done, Ng puts her confidence in the “universal structure” of a good story: hook, build-up, and emotional payoff.

After all, we are content creatures and filmmakers. We do our best to captivate audiences and engage them. But this is never our only focus. As Peggy says, the one thing we won’t sacrifice is the essence of film-making, that is, to tell great stories.


Do you have a story to tell? Freeflow productions is an award-winning production house that specialises in all forms of videos, from TVCs to corporate videos and animation.

Visit its website for a closer look at their recent works.