The king of silent movies Charlie Chaplin famously failed to transition into the era of “talkies”.
David Robinson wrote in Chaplin: His Art and Life that “Chaplin was cynical about this new medium and the technical shortcomings it presented, believing that “talkies” lacked the artistry of silent films. He was also hesitant to change the formula that had brought him such success, and feared that giving the Tramp a voice would limit his international appeal.”
Sound familiar? A significant advancement of a media form creating new opportunities, yet wholesale rejection by dominant players vested in “the old ways of doing things?”
The addition of sound to film wasn’t just ‘film with sound on it’, it was clear that this watershed heralded a new kind of product and sensation, one that would demand new processes and new talents, but one that would also broaden the medium’s appeal to a much larger audience, transforming the economics and the scale of the industry with them. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp was a product finessed for the silent era and he wasn’t going to let it go. Laurel & Hardy didn't seem to care that much (they struggled just carrying a ladder around).
The truth is, just like Charlie Chaplin, we’re all vested in a way of selling, creating and evaluating that we've all got very good at.
A few months ago Googler Ben Jones ushered me into a basement in Cannes, with a few global creative directors of repute to share some research he'd been conducting with the team at Art, Copy & Code in New York. Working both with neutral test videos and also in some field research with partner brand Mountain Dew, Ben had systematically worked through treatments and production techniques to shake out audience responses and tastes, not through focus groups but by testing work in the field, placed and consumed completely naturally.
The project has an insightful write up here and it's well worth a deeper dive, but to cut a long story short, one of the findings was how a radical, ‘non-narrative’ cut of the TV commercial generated much greater engagement when consumed on mobile devices than the traditional ad approach (beginning, middle and end + problem, solution = everyone is happy (energised in this case) and of course, the product is the hero right?!
We sat there in the room and I posed this question to everyone… "Would our client, our agency, our creatives, our production company, our industry, want us to reject traditional narrative form in the pursuit of engaged consumers that might demand a move to the radical and experimental?" The expressions and grunts around to room said not. The truth is, just like Charlie Chaplin, we’re all vested in a way of selling, creating and evaluating that we’ve all got very good at. Ben's findings tell us that a lot of what we've learnt and got very good at is at best irrelevant, at worst downright counter-productive, and yet our whole business still tries to prop up the illusion.
It’s all too easy to be negative and cynical about all the inertia and cronyism but as we see from all areas of disruption, the winners are the ones not freaked out by change and instead bury themselves in optimistic, opportunistic, rapid-reinvention.
So in the interests of exploring ‘New Video’, a kind of catch-all for all things not ‘Old Video (+film)’ we put together a panel at London’s 2015 Social Media Week, a maturing forum for progressive marketeers to examine progressive communications and marketing concepts and techniques in this fast evolving sector.
To explore New Video, we didn’t want to dive into a nuanced channel conversation, but instead take a step back and get a fresh view of the whole. To do this I invited Guy Larsen, an independent film-maker known through his work with seminal, multimillion-subscriber Youtuber Vsauce as well as his own project that include youtube hit Girls Who Read. 'Also on the panel was Vysia Duffield, from Pixability, a video ad buying and marketing technology company with the largest repository of historical YouTube data. A statistical perspective on the subject provided a frame for the discussion and underpinned the scale of what we’re talking about with the obvious implications for economics.
With online video expected to attract 12.8% of digital advertising spend by 2017, the stakes are high. Cisco predicts that video will account of 80% internet traffic by 2018.
And whilst enormous attention has been placed on optimisation, the more abstract and artistic issues around expression, storytelling and treatments have been somewhat neglected. There’s a lot of discussion about landscape versus portrait and the millisecond within a video a brand should appear for optimal recall, but few will be able to navigate the vagueries of what kind of experience works best in the actual content itself.
Google’s Mountain Dew “Pure Fun” cut isn't a story at all, it’s a bunch of scenes thrown together in an attention grabbing, amusing way, something you immediately feel operates in the vernacular of 'make's' rather than brand advertisers, because the cutting style and set-up are clearly different to what you'd expect from a traditional ad. We've seen millions of different TV ads that roughly work in the same way over the course of our lives so we're very sensitive to the codes. We can spot them a mile-off and of course most online formats allow skipping or flicking to move their attention swiftly forwards.
The Mountain Dew test showed us that a different approach could yield more attention and engagement but didn’t start to really articulate what really counts in “New Video”, what’s it’s essence and the idiosyncrasies that define modest from the meteoric outcomes. We wanted to dig deeper…
As an independent film maker, Guy doesn’t have to reconcile the old habits of digital channels with the conventions of brand marketing, so can go whatever way is most fruitful for growing views, subs etc. Guy had some very useful experiences to share with us about what really matters in these formats. One of these regarded the inevitable "gloss" that's added indiscriminately to brand advertising, a certain switch-off for digital audiences.
“There’s lots to be said my end about it and the "speed vs payoff" dilemma that filmmakers have to juggle now when considering internet video, audience development, changes in people's quality threshold, authenticity perception, and the opportunities this might have for them. A guy who I think really juggles everything well is TimTimFed. He can make them quick enough to hit current zeitgeists, include really impressive VFX, and is satirical enough to play off typical internet tropes and old media tropes.”
Another reason to consider "New Video" as apposed to "Old Video" are a series of attributes that unite nearly all videos that exist on popular video sharing platforms.
The first is context. Platforms and the multiple communities within them are all places, with their own set of references, and memories. Their own cultures, their own jokes, their own tastes. New Video is not contextless and thus audiences don't respond well to generic communication that doesn’t resonate with these nuanced, contextual cues. Remember the terrible, jarring effect when we got the toothpaste ad made for the German market that was re-purposed for the UK market? Like this, but much worse! You're advertising the fact that your brand doesn't get me or my world at all!
The second is associations. Whether we’re talking about youtube, facebook, instagram, or vine videos (or anything else) association plays a key role in the reading of a video’s status and significance. Just as twitter reputations are predicated on the company they keep, the same is true of videos and channels / profiles. No video lives in a vacuum, they all participate in a web of associations and as we know as communicators, these links are critical in weaving brands into culture, i.e. into our consciousness. When Poke drew up the conceptual framework for Wembley Cup, the tension and drive pushing these web series forward was a lot to do with managing and stimulating the associations between the influential Youtuber channels participating. Their association with each other, as well as with significant names from the footballing world created a powerful motivation to perform and share content, but also constantly reinforced EE as an enabler in the story, powering it into the viewers consciousness.
Finally relationships, in a similar way to associations are present in nearly every video on the web. Web videos exists as part of a much bigger network of structural connections. Whether those are algorithmic relationships with "other videos like this", search style organizational models or editorial links or blogs, tweets and tumbr embeds. The list goes on, but the point is important, videos do not stand alone as closed messaging collateral, they’re a part of the web's fabric and that's incredibly powerful providing you don't close them off and deter reaction and the subsequent conversation (all which build links, connections and relationships, ultimately ‘presence’)
To develop the theme of relationships Vysia details some insights around the performance of new approaches within industry verticals that both nod to performance of content more woven into communities but also proof that a looser definition of category, with more playful incorporation of humour, for instance, are not only breaking old assumptions but are also very popular with audiences…
“Pixability’s data shows that each vertical industry on YouTube carries its own distinct audience and content attributes. In the beauty space on YouTube, for example, tutorial videos make up 45% of content, and brand-sponsored creator giveaway videos earn more likes per view than any other type of content. Cross-over beauty content – like beauty + comedy or beauty + fashion videos – earn 530% more views per video and 670% more Facebook shares per video than beauty-only video content.
In the consumer electronics industry on YouTube, in the weeks leading up to a product release, brand videos receive a high numbers of views, but post-release, independent content creators outperform brands in terms of overall views. Traditional commercials, which still make up 37% of the YouTube content published by CE brands, capture only 10% of total views.”
Brands should be obsessing less about optimising existing formats and instead opening up to experimentation and play
There is no clear mega-genres emerging as particularly dominant at this time for New Video. Long form, short form, vertical and portrait video formats are all evolving and all score well and not so well depending on the quality of content context etc. as you might expect. To encourage the healthy development of New Video there's clearly much to overcome, but starting to articulate that is exists by naming it, acknowledging its nature and strengths and by championing the exemplars, we will find a way forward for brands and industry alike and perhaps coin new sub-genres as they form and mature.
What is certainly true from all we’ve seen, the videos that have done the best, score low on old prejudices around format and production values and embrace the creativity afforded by all the new freedoms and opportunities in this new world.
In practical terms, this means brands obsessing less about optimising existing formats and instead opening up to experimentation and play, certainly the best way to eek out hidden new forms that are going to flow the most naturally from their brand spirit and story.
Vysia recommends that brands should "set aside budget to innovate and try new things, as video is there to interest and entertain. There is a wealth of data available to marketers, and this data allows them opportunities to understand what resonates with their target audience, down to where audience engagement with video drops off. Marketers can use this data to create better content, target the right audience and plan and execute effective ad campaigns"
So let’s toast Chaplain’s Tramp with cool fizzy Mountain Dew and swap our studios for labs and start cooking up New Video’s future.