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Cutting Through the (Digital) Clutter

Cutting Through the (Digital) Clutter Chris Haines

Whenever an eCommerce client asks about the ideal length of digital video content, I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s maxim that “a man’s legs must be long enough to reach the ground.”  So my response is:  video content should be long enough to get the job done. There is no standard video length, whether you’re selling hamburgers or $5,000 handbags. Instead, one needs to answer the question with another question: what is this particular piece of content trying to achieve? Is the goal brand building? Promotional details? Ease of social sharing? If the answer is “yes,” according to compelling evidence from Facebook, then the ideal video ad length, for eCommerce at least, is 16-20 seconds long. But while this may be enough time to get a single point across, it’s not nearly enough to allow for complex storytelling required to list product details or technical specs.

Since video content is all about storytelling, let’s go back to the basics of what makes good storytelling (or writing, as we used to call it back in the day). Turns out, your high school teachers put so much importance on a thesis statement for good reason; a strong thesis statement reassures the reader that you know what you’re talking about, that there’s a structure you’re going to follow, and most importantly, you won’t be wasting their time.

The more complex the story, the more time you can use to tell it. Demonstrating how a blouse or dress hangs and moves can be beautifully accomplished in two seconds, but step-by-step instructions for connecting your sound bar to your television or making angel food cake, for example, will take longer to show. In any case, no in-line video content that appears in your browsing life should ever be longer than three minutes. Multiple studies have shown that the three-minute mark is the outer limit for consumer tolerance. After all, long-form content is the reason YouTube was invented.

Now that the importance of structure has been established, it’s important to acknowledge that web-based video content is different from traditional television and movie content because of its context. Traditional video experiences are lean-back moments when the viewer disengages from other inputs (save for the plight of the second screen) and gives into the story. But Internet browsing is, typically, a lean-in experience. It requires constant decision making about what to click and what to ignore.

I’ve found the best way to explain digital strategy is to connect it to its analog precedent, and there is no better analog example of web browsing than the souk. The souk is the ancient marketplace or bazaar where everything is for sale. What springs to mind when you imagine a bazaar? Crowded alleys where vendors compete for space cheek by jowl? Check. Rainbows of colors and textures and smells? Check. But, the most consistent experience of the bazaars of Istanbul or Marrakesh is noise.

With everyone hawking a different product, it’s almost impossible to cut through the commotion. In order to grab someone’s attention and hold it in a raucous environment like the Internet, you need to be able to deliver value in every word that’s spoken. Tell the consumer what you have, why it’s the best, and how it will satisfy their specific needs. If you can get this one principal right, then distractions like background music, flashy graphics, repetitive claims and B-roll will fall to the wayside. Of course, you could also garner attention by shouting louder than anyone else in the marketplace, but all that’s guaranteed to win you is undying resentment.

Once a person actually tunes in to your message, they’ll remain hooked as long as you maintain their interest. That includes keeping the story as brief as you can without sacrificing details. The recipe is simple:

  • Open with a thesis statement.
  • Support your story with evidence.
  • The quicker you cut to the chase, the better.

So, how long should video content be? More than 16 seconds, but less than 3 minutes.

That’s my thesis and I’m sticking to it.

Chris Haines has managed content and digital strategies for such blue chip brands as Travel + Leisure, The Tony Awards and U.S. News & World Report -- where he oversaw the renowned "America's Best Colleges" rankings. At Fluid, Chris provides the...

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