Special thanks to my colleague and friend Erwin Baumgartner for contributing to this article.
Made-for-web video ads are becoming widespread. Many brands are finally coming around on the value of video content crafted specifically for the web canvas, and investing an additional hour shooting an ad to create a web version is gradually becoming the norm. Briefs are increasingly being written with the internet audience in mind, and more brands are becoming accustomed to asking their creative agencies “what’s the web version?” when a new idea is presented to them. I find this awesome. It’s another step towards an internet where brands produce content that users want to watch, and everyone wins.
Yet, the term itself “made-for-web video” is quite ambiguous. Many marketers use it simply as a synonym of long form content (as opposed to the traditional 30 sec TVC), and this is the ugly part of the story. If you only remove the constraint of duration from video content, you are still operating within very tight boundaries. If a video ad is terrible, I’d rather swallow it in 30 sec than extending it to any length.
So here are 5 important aspects about made-for-web video content which marketers (and their agencies) should think about in order to really maximize the opportunity.
1. Cross-screen (and mobile-first)
Digest this first: you have no way to know in advance on which device you will meet your target users on a given day. We hear about multi-screening so much that some marketers seem to believe that people are in front of multiple screens all the time, and this is terribly misleading. Consider this: on the first day of a video campaign, the overlap between your desktop viewers and your mobile viewers is almost negligible (obviously it will increase on any subsequent day and taper off after a couple of weeks). The takeaway is: made-for-web content should be optimized to different screen experiences, because content will hit different users on different screens.
Among all screens, mobile should be the first you optimize for, for 2 reasons. First, most of the views (in many, soon most countries) come from mobile. Second, mobile is the canvas offering the most freedom (smartphones can see through cameras, get context via GPS and gyroscopes, etc). At Google we usually say: “If you solve for mobile, you can solve for any screen” (doing the opposite is much harder).
Besides not knowing in advance on which device you will meet your target audience, you also don’t know when and where it will happen. On TV, you know when your ad is running, so there’s little margin for error. On the web, it’s anytime, anywhere. Targeting micro-moments is the new paradigm of digital marketing, as Sridhar Ramaswamy (Google SVP of Ads) explained in his recent op-ed on WSJ. So think of your content as ‘snackable’, easy to access across web properties, easy to consume, and fit for a wide range of consumer touchpoints.
3. Platform native
While liquid content travels across web properties (e.g. video platform), it is also true that each of these properties is specific in the way users engage and how media works. For example, advertisers are likely to upload their video ads on both YouTube and Facebook (and/or a few other video platforms). However, the best content on, say, YouTube, is content built specifically for YouTube. Consider the latest series of Geico ads (here is an example), all built with the clear intent of being ‘unskippable’ on YouTube. Or the latest video tutorial on “how to let yourself go” (link here), created in a collaboration between Snickers and the YouTube star Jessica Harlow. Obviously these videos will work pretty well on other platforms too (they are ‘liquid’), but they are built for and perform the best on YouTube.
More on this point: different video platforms attract different audiences (e.g. different demos, preferences, etc) and in different touchpoints. Knowing which audience you want to address primarily will tell you where to start creating content. More on this topic in my previous blog post (link here).
Advertising has learned much from film-making. So much, that storytelling has become a mantra, especially since duration of video ads on the web is not a constraint. However, a more meaningful shift in my opinion is from storytelling to ‘story-asking’. Story-asking is about inviting users to build stories together with the narrator. Often, these stories come in the form of themes or interconnected experiences, such as in the case of GoPro (the ‘ask’ from the brand is “capture + share your world”) or Coca-Cola’s “Ahh” campaign. At a more basic level, story-asking is about telling a story that will resonate with users to the point that they will participate with sharing, commenting, etc.
5. The right duration
Finally, I’ll go back to the point of duration. Made for web video ads are often long-form, but are often short-form as well (e.g. ‘bumper ads’ are only a few seconds long, and marketers love them). Many times I’ve been asked what the ideal duration of a video ad is. I generally say: “however much you need to tell your story and persuade the viewer to take some action”. However, having no constraints of duration is no excuse to be prolix. Any presentation coach knows that it’s hard for a presenter to keep an audience’s attention for more than 20 minutes straight. Similarly, for video ads, it’s hard to keep a user’s attention for more than 2 or 3 minutes. Great movies of over 2 hours exist but most are between 90 and 120 min. Great books of over 500 pages exist but most are much shorter. Similarly, great video ads of 10 minutes or more certainly exist, but the sweet spot appears to be between 1 and 2 minutes.
There’s a catch here though… From a user perspective, there’s no such thing as a video ad. If you are serious about made-for-web content, the first barrier to tear down is the one between content and advertising. Eventually, as Kevin Spacey once noted, any differentiation will fall away.