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Ad Advice: Online Video Ad Pros Spell Out What Works Now

What's trending in online ad creative? Agencies are testing formats and lengths to see what works in pre-roll and branded content. Here's a quick rundown on trends:

Should You Follow the Leader?

Where to place content is always the first question. Right now the overwhelming winner is Facebook according to a recent study of 250 ad professionals by adtech firm Mixpo. 50 percent of those surveyed had run ads on Facebook, compared with 31 percent on YouTube and 17 percent on Twitter.

"What has been a big change is the way that advertisers flock more to Facebook video then they have to YouTube," says Justin Kistner, vice president of product for Mixpo.

Based on the survey, it seems like Facebook should be a video marketer's primary destination, but it practice it depends on your campaign's goals and where the audience is. "Each audience has a different channel and each channel has specifics about how media is consumed. We talk to our client's audience research and data science teams to find out which environments to target," says Noah Workman, co-founder and creative director for agency Iris MediaWorks.

Testing Tools

Workman brings a lean start-up mentality to his clients and actively tests content.

"We iterate to see what has the most impact. Previously, an art director at an agency might come up with an idea that doesn't resonate with the audience, but because he's senior, the campaign runs with the idea," says Workman. "Now we can test and learn what works."

One tool Workman uses is Doorboost.com to determine which campaign is resonating. When testing, he also advises using stills, since they're a lot less expensive to produce than video and they can quickly identify what's impactful to viewers.

"We created an episodic web series called ‘Courageous Leaders' for small business insurance company Hiscox. The first month it was exclusive to Vox and then it was distributed as widely as possible." The campaign drove over 10,000 views to the company's website. The challenge was creating interesting content about insurance, a topic not high on many people's lists.

Scroll-By Messaging

Driving engagement is especially challenging in the social world, where viewing an ad is often optional. Content has to be compelling enough to make viewers stop, click, and pay attention.

"You have to work a lot harder to make your content compelling right out of the gate when you are serving content in an opt-in type of environment like Facebook and Twitter," says Kistner.

"In social media, you want to be careful about not doing traditional hard-sell messages (like what you find on TV). So, if you're creating an ad that's going to be on Facebook in particular, it's a good idea to make it non-salesy and go with a storyline that has some intrinsic value outside of your sales message," says Frank Clark, owner and creative director for agency Square Tomato.

In this test, soft-sell beat out hard-sell.
In this test, soft-sell beat out hard-sell.

"For Essentia bottled water we did two different video executions. One was more a traditional product sell, the other was a soft-sell approach with more storytelling within it. We found by running both on Facebook and Youtube that the soft-sell had a much better response with five times more views," Clark says.

A World Without Audio

Another challenge is how to be persuasive without audio. "One best practice for doing video on Facebook is to make sure that your video message does not depend on sounds, because it's likely that the user will have the sound turned off," Clark says. "It's good to use title cards or supers for messaging, or do something that does not rely on a voiceover or dialogue. That's different from our traditional television model."

Experiment with on-screen text for audio-free environments.
Experiment with on-screen text for audio-free environments.

Not being able to rely on audio has led to creative uses of text on screen. Some productions use closed captions, while others embellish text with different fonts or animations.

"I think people who are taking it one step further are doing a really smart use of closed captions in a very high design form of an overlay, to draw attention to something. You might put a semi-transparent color over the whole video and make the words pretty large so it looks like designed graphics," Kistner says.

Go Vertical

Right now, the most popular video orientation is horizontal with audio off, but the vertical format is drawing attention for its novelty. It's popularity shouldn't be a surprise given the way people hold their phones.

"We will see a lot more vertical driven by mobile usage and Snapchat," Workman says. "We have a number of campaigns in the works right now."

"Embracing new formats is always a good idea because there's a novelty factor. Vertical videos are really hot right now, but there's not a lot of video content that's been created that way. It's actually quite a bit of a challenge to get advertisers to think outside of the landscape orientation, but users respond very well to them, so I think you're going to see a growing number of video shot this way," Kistner says.

Being Efficient

"The people that you see who are more likely to create content originally for video are small businesses, emerging brands, or a few brands that are more of the innovators," Kistner says. The challenge, however, is smaller budgets don't lend themselves to multiple versions of an ad.

"It's not always practical to do an ad for each platform," Clark says. "What we have found so far is logistically there is not enough differences in the platforms to produce different versions of the same ads. What we've done is develop content that we think is friendly to social media platforms."

Does Size Matter?

Video pre-roll provides the best return on investment among online ad formats, according to the same Mixpo survey. While pre-rolls are typically 15- or 30-seconds long, some brands think longer form.

"We're seeing brands get great success using a very long format to deliver almost infomercial-like experiences. When someone is genuinely interested in your content, that can be a good way to give them a lot," Kistner says.

"We find with good content, the length of time a piece runs is irrelevant. The first few seconds, regardless of platform, need to be incredibly sticky and we make sure the ask from the client is very early on," Workman says.



Short-Term Planning

It may seem counterintuitive, but short-term planning works better than long-term planning for one agency's clients. Plan too far out and you can't be on top on trending size, formats, and approaches. The sweet spot is three months.

"A list of formats should come down in the planning phase between the brand, the media agency, and the ad agency. We should all understand, 'Here are all the sizes, formats, lengths, and edits that we need and that should be provided at the point of budgeting,'" says Keenan Beasley, co-founder and managing partner for the agency BLKBOX. "People who have shorter planning windows can usually nail things quickly. Longer term—like a year out—is tough."

That sums up the top challenges: Identify which platform is trending, test the message, think vertical, deliver information rather than a sales pitch, jazz up your text, consider non-traditional content lengths, and keep planning short term.

Nadine Krefetz's article first appeared on OnlineVideo.net

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