Disney debuts streaming shoppable ad beta program, contextual advertising tech

Disney this week unveiled new ad innovations, with plans to bring shoppable formats and contextual advertising capabilities to its streaming platforms.

Speaking at the Disney Tech & Data Showcase Wednesday during CES, Disney President of Global Advertising Rita Ferro said more than half of new subscribers to Disney+ are now choosing the ad tier, which first launched in December 2022.  And regardless of subscription type, with or without commercials, are tuning in for nearly the same amount of time. Across its global streaming portfolio, including Hulu and ESPN+, Disney has more than 225 million subscribers.

As it continues to build up a subscriber base for Disney+ with ads, the media company is launching new formats for advertisers – with executives touting the power of Disney’s fully-owned tech stack.

Shoppable beta program

Building on its earlier Gateway Go e-commerce format, Disney has launched a beta program for its first native streaming shoppable ads, dubbed Gateway Shop. 

This type of ad is meant to allow consumers to buy items using a second screen without disrupting the viewing experience. The format sends personalized prompts for products or offers within a TV ad unit directly to viewers’ phones through push notifications or email. Disney said it’s leaning into consumer behavior on streaming, where most viewers are watching content with a second screen or mobile device in-hand or close by.

Consumer goods giant Unilever is among the first advertising partners to sign on for the limited beta launch of Gateway Shop. London-headquartered Unilever has over 400 consumer brands, such as Ben & Jerry’s, Dove, Hellmann’s and Axe, among many others.

“With the most scale in streaming and the strongest audience signal through our foundational data and ad tech stack, Disney is uniquely enabled to power dynamic ad experiences that connect consumer interest and intent to the purchase – straight from the stream,” said Jamie Power, SVP of Addressable Sales at Disney Advertising, in a statement. “Our goal is to help audiences connect with the brands they love with the least amount of friction, without disrupting the content they’re streaming.”

Power went on to say that in a cross-screen viewing environment Disney believes “shoppable experiences not only complement, but elevate, streaming.”

The latest plans build on the earlier Gateway Go e-commerce format that sent promos to mobile devices through email, push notifications or QR codes. Disney launched that format in 2020 and since then has had more than 200 advertisers across categories sign on to use it.

“We’re in testing today, but the learnings are exciting and clear: Gateway Shop is enhancing viewer engagement,” said Ajay Arora SVP of Commerce, Growth, and Identity, at Disney, during the showcase Wednesday. “We've seen a boost of up to five times the engagement by leveraging our Gateway capabilities. And we’re still early in the game, so there is plenty of opportunity ahead.”

And down the line the company’s introducing what it calls “Disney’s Shop the Stream,” which will allow viewers to send products they see in Disney films and TV shows to their second screen by pressing a button on the remote.

Arora said, “in the very near future” consumers would be able to shop for items like a shirt similar to that of Carmy – the main character of “The Bear” series – “and buy all the plates, cookware, mixers, and kitchen knives…even those cans of tomatoes.”

Disney isn’t the first to test out shoppable ad and TV capabilities. Roku has been in pilot programs for interactive and shoppable ad formats with partners such as Walmart, DoorDash and Shopify. And NBCUniversal’s Peacock in November introduced a “shop the look” shoppable TV experience on select episodes of Bravo’s Below Deck in partnership with Walmart. For more on how interactivity and new ad formats made their way to streaming in 2023, read here.

Contextual advertising

Another new capability teed up for Disney advertisers is contextual advertising that enables brands to tap into a specific, moment, mood or emotion and personalize messaging around that.

The new technology, called “Disney Magic Words,” enables the company to analyze scenes and visuals across the Disney library. Ferro used the example of characters sitting around a kitchen table or restaurant talking about food.

“Now, imagine you’re a brand running across our portfolio, or wanting to connect with food culture,” Ferro said. "You will be able to run an ad buy that optimizes your creative to a contextual mood within these collections of scenes that deal with food or dinner conversation.” 

The technology is in discovery phase now and is expected to be available by the 2024 Upfront to beta partners and expand more broadly by the end of the year.

In another move to make the streaming ad buying process simpler for advertisers, Disney also announced brands can now buy across both Hulu and Disney+ in a single campaign.

Hulu-Disney+ beta integration driving engagement

Disney benefits from long-time experience with ads on streaming as Hulu was one of the early services to incorporate ads, including new formats like Pause and Binge ads, which helped paved the way for more recent launches of Disney+ with ads in the U.S. EMEA and Canada.

In December the company started integrating its two leading services, rolling out a Hulu hub on Disney+ to Disney bundled subscribers in the U.S. that lets viewers watch content from the service without leaving the Disney+ app. 

Echoing earlier comments from Ferro, Disney President of Direct-to-Consumer Streaming Joe Earley on Wednesday reiterated that engagement following the beta launch last month is exceeding the company’s own expectations and said it  “and continues to grow week-over-week.”

“Consumers are watching more, both in terms of hours and a wider variety of programming, which strengthens our platform and leads to more opportunities for advertisers,” Earley said.

An official launch of the fully integrated app is planned for March