Marketers and content makers have been conditioned over time to believe that online video needs to be short and punchy.

This is based on the presumption that people have limited attention spans, and therefore longer-form content would be wasted – particularly on the multi-tasking Gen Y consumer.

But is duration really a key factor of successful adoption? And how about social sharing? Is the length of a branded video likely to affect people’s willingness to share it?

In the space of 1,000 or more words, I can’t promise to deal with all the answers, but hopefully you’ll agree these questions merit further consideration before setting your content or advertising strategy.

Ingredients for successful engagement

When we publish a branded video online, our hope is that people choose to watch and engage with its content. Engagement could include anything from clicking an embedded link and searching for more information or discussing the video with friends and acquaintances.

But beyond the obvious benefits, there is another more important reason marketers should focus their efforts on creating content that will be shared.

The latest ‘Social Ad Effectiveness’ white paper from Unruly Media, demonstrates a 7% uplift in brand recall and association amongst viewers who had been recommended a video, versus those who discovered it by browsing.

There was also a 14% increase in the number of people who enjoyed a video, following a recommendation from someone they know.

Unruly Media Social Ad Effectiveness Study

This is reinforced by the findings published in the Psychology of Sharing study by the New York Times Customer Insight Group, which discovered that “73% of people process information more deeply, thoroughly and thoughtfully when they share it” and “85% of people who receive a recommendation find that reading other people’s responses helps them understand and process information and events.”

It has long been known that our recollection of events (or a brand message) is greatly improved when it is contained within a story.

This is basic psychology, which teaches us that the deeper we process information the stronger the memory that is formed. So, it follows that the recipient of the shared content should also be encouraged to think a little.

Understanding the importance of sharing is only part of the problem, it also helps if we know why people share videos in the first place.

The psychology of sharing

Every business school student will be familiar with Maslow’s A Theory of Human Motivation, and it applies just as well in today’s online ecosystem as it originally did back in 1943.

In the context of video sharing, we can simplify it down to just three main motivations:

  1. Relationships – sharing valuable and entertaining content with others provides common ground and a reason to connect, thus helping us foster and nourish those relationships.
  2. Acknowledgement and self-identification – sharing is a way of defining ourselves in the eyes of others, if we would like to be viewed as having a great sense of humour then we might share a funny video, the same goes for being seen as intelligent, empathetic and being valued and useful to others.
  3. Emotional response – we share content because of how we ‘feel’ about it, this could be anger, awe, surprise, happiness or sadness but our motivation to share always starts with an emotional stimulus and a need to connect with others who will acknowledge and reinforce our feelings and beliefs.

A recent study by Jonah Berger in Psychological Science, showed that people are more likely to share due to states of high arousal such as anger, fear, or humour whilst low arousal emotions such as sadness or contemplation are less likely to result in content being shared.

New York Times - Psychology of Sharing

However, there is no clear behavioural evidence to suggest that a shorter video clip is more likely to be shared than a longer one, instead the dependency is far more personal than functional.

Let’s look at a few examples.

In an interview last year with DC Shoes’ Chief Brand Officer, Ken Block, he asked me about the significance of content length on the popularity of online video.

At the time his fourth video in the Gymkhana series was over nine minutes long, and had already received 12.9m views and been shared 2.1m times.

With an average of seven minutes across all four Gymkhana videos, they’ve become one of the most successful branded video campaigns of all time, with more than 140m views and their success has not been inhibited by their length.

Whilst nine minutes is far from commonplace, Peugeot’s latest interactive video campaign, Let your body drive, is over seven minutes long and yet has already clocked up more than 1.1m views and 11,000 shares, yet again casting doubt on the significance of size as a factor.

The key takeaway to remember is that people share videos because of what it says about them, not about you, and size really does not matter, most of the time.

The way we use the internet is evolving

Both Comscore and Nielsen agree in their latest surveys that show social media now accounts for around 20% of our time spent online, whilst Gaming takes up 11%, followed by video sharing at 3 to 4%.

Whilst this reflects the real shift towards social media in recent years, the message it conveys about online video is a misleading one.

Video has always lagged behind other forms of online media due to the proportionately higher amount of bandwidth it requires – this is particularly true for mobile video which tripled in popularity (minutes of use) during 2010 alone according to YouTube.

In a recent survey produced by Burst Media – Online Video Content & Advertising29.9% say they would watch more online video content if the quality of content were higher, whilst more than one-quarter (26.4%) would watch more if their access were more flexible (i.e., the ability to watch anytime, anywhere, from any device).

So, whilst video currently lags behind social media and gaming, it is growing fast. Very fast.

Cisco updated their IP traffic forecast last year, publishing the Visual Networking Index (VNI) white paper.

In case you are not aware, Cisco provide much of the IP-based network on which the bulk of the internet runs today, so rather than its forecast being another example of corporate crystal-ball gazing, it is actually the basis on which they plan their $5.3bn annual capital investment programme – as do many other carriers and equipment providers.

Cisco mobile usage forecast 2011-2016

Some of the interesting highlights from this paper include; by 2015 Cisco expect video to account for around 57% of consumer internet traffic, nearly four times as much as regular web browsing and email.

Of this, 47% is expected to consist of long-form video (greater than seven minutes in length), compared with just 9% being user-generated and non-professional short-form content.

Whilst we will still mostly watch video via fixed networks (incl. Wi-Fi), around 10% will be viewed on mobile devices (across 3G/4G networks). Mobile traffic as a whole is set to increase a staggering 18-fold by 2016, whilst mobile video will represent 71% of all mobile data traffic by 2016.

We are already seeing signs of this growth materialising. Last month, BBC iPlayer reported its highest ever viewing figures, with 1.94 billion programme requests recorded during 2011.

But despite the growth in connected TVs (including devices such as Xbox and Playstation), smartphones and tablets accounted for 77% of the programmes viewed, while iPad viewing was up by 596% compared to a year ago.

Often these mobile devices are used as a ‘second screen’ (or companion device) to accompany TV viewing, and this duality of purpose makes tablet devices an inevitable choice for many more people in future (representing just 5% of internet users  currently).

A new era for online video

The significance of these insights show that ‘right now’ we are actually at the beginning of a surge in video consumption. We are entering a new era for online video as the focus increasingly turns to quality, rather than quantity.

One consequence of this higher quality is that branded content will become even more engaging and entertaining, as it competes for viewers attention amongst other premium content. Video advertising will prove to be effective, without being intrusive, which is already demonstrated by the popularity of ads in the latest Viral Video Charts.

Whilst broadcast television will remain an expensive (but effective) medium for instantly reaching mass audiences, online will become a complimentary medium, integrating with television for a richer experience and enabling a deeper engagement with brands.

With such a promising outlook, no wonder billions are being invested in providing the infrastructure to keep up with demand, but with greater opportunity comes the need to improve the narrative of online branded video, moving on from the 30-second TV spot.