Why you shouldn’t optimize video: column

Red Lion's Matt Litzinger challenges some common truths about tailoring creative to digital platforms.

By Matt Litzinger

You may have heard a prediction from Cisco that three years from now, 82% of global internet traffic will be made up of video. That’s jarring, but also a good reminder of why video optimization is necessary in order to stand out. Having said that, one of the unintended consequences of optimization is the death of the brand narrative.

Red Lion’s digital strategist Michael Ash and I reviewed some of the advice we as an industry have been told to follow about video optimization, ones that you should consider challenging before your next campaign is etched out – or at least be mindful of their consequences.

Catering to shorter attention spans

Thought leaders argue that attention spans are under threat, citing millennial viewing habits and comparing them to goldfish to convince us that ads need to be shorter. But is shorter really better?

Google tried to answer this question a few years ago and had mixed results: while ad recall performed better for short videos, longer content had a higher impact on brand favourability. In contrast, Facebook’s results were more straightforward. In their eyes, shorter is better because the bulk of the viewer’s attention is grabbed in the first few seconds.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Netflix members have an issue. It’s called bingeing. The reality is, if viewers around the world are blinking their lives away, then our problem is about context, not attention spans.

Showing the logo as early as possible

Agencies are often asked to show the brand badge in the first three to 10 seconds. This isn’t a new conversation. The older people reading this will remember arguing this point for television commercials, since people are more consistent at remembering the beginning and the end of a story. If viewers are impatient or get bored, at least they’ll remember us for our brand lift or ad recall studies.

Unfortunately, showing the brand badge early on for the sake of recall has its own set of flaws. All we’re proving in our studies is if we triggered the mental shortcuts we’ve hijacked. Plus, what if you’re trying to re-position your brand? If viewers don’t like your brand or what it used to stand for, then showing your badge in the first few seconds might be a death wish, and a threat to a meaningful new plot.

Using visual hooks

A few years ago, Facebook went on a crusade to educate us about the role of video in its ecosystem. A favourite lesson was the idea of repeatedly transferring attention with “visual hooks.” Think of it as a drive-through window for your eyes. The square in the newsfeed may be the same, but at least something new will come along every few seconds.

Visual hooks are great, but are we telling stories on social or making billboards people glide by? Maybe the newsfeed is actually a highway, and your thumb is in the driver seat. You cruise through the traffic, and occasionally something unexpected catches your attention. Is the viewability at 100%? Probably not, because half of your thumb is headed into an exit ramp.

Designing without sound

Over 80% of videos on Facebook are played without sound, so the go-to-advice is to add captions or supers. Since we can’t change how the platform functions, this makes complete sense. Supers and subtitles help audiences understand what they’re watching – until they don’t.

Let’s revisit Tide’s ad from this year’s Super Bowl. An amazing idea crafted well, but the majority of the references wouldn’t be the same without the voice of David Harbour. Watch that same ad on Tide’s Facebook page and you’ll see white subtitles changing as fast as you can blink. I’m sure some people found this annoying, but turned up the volume because of a fear of missing out on the ad everyone was talking about. If a spot becomes cultural currency, people will find a reason to listen.

Before I get DMs from our media partners, I want to make something clear: our clients expect results and anything we can do to set them up for success is our duty. Every optimization tactic we just talked about gives us an edge over the competition, but no one wants to talk about the side effects of using those same guidelines. Imagine that it’s 2021 and 82% of the content you digest in your day-to-day life is video. If we’re all going to use the same formula to make stickier ads, then chances are consumers might become desensitized to them. Bernbach said it best: “rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.”

Matt Litzinger is the president and chief creative officer of Red Lion.