Online Video: Look Who’s All Grown Up!

Whenever I see programming from early-day television — a flickering black-and-white kinescope of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, for instance — I’m reminded how much television content began as little more than illustrated radio scripts. It took a while to develop the tools and language that would allow the television to become a far more powerful communications medium than radio. And as the television industry advanced the technologies and creative approaches that bolstered its grip on consumers, broadcast and advertising executives were paying careful attention to audiences. The technologies and creative approaches that moved audiences were reinforced, setting a virtuous cycle in motion.

By the 1960s, television no longer looked like illustrated radio. It looked like television. The brands first to figure that out — the soft-drink manufacturers most notably — became big winners. We’re clearly at the same inflection point with online video. For all of the explosive growth of online video in the past five years, most of the content still looks a lot like repurposed (barely repurposed) television programming. But the same processes that guided the technology, creativity and audience engagement of television some 60 years ago are now beginning to deliver online video as its own, distinct medium.

Today’s most effective online video is something far different than cable TV content delivered to a laptop or mobile device. Today’s content is shorter, faster, punchier. Individual scenes clock in at three or four seconds. Graphics are bold, and verbiage (if any) is limited to a word or two. Smart brands are figuring out how to deliver 10-second online spots that do the same work as a 30-second television commercial.

And once again, the brands that move first to take advantage of this distinct medium will be the big winners. In January, Google gathered the thoughts of three industry leaders — Betinna Hein, CEO of Pixability, Allison Stern, CMO and co-founder of Tubular Labs, and Jason Mander, chief research officer at GlobalWebIndex — about this year’s online video trends.

It’s striking how Hein, Stern and Mander all allude to online video as an all-grown-up medium — one that drives the ways that people connect with content. They describe a medium that is shaping itself to meet the habits and mindsets of an audience different from those who previously relied on cable, or television before that, or radio before that. And they describe new advertising techniques that increase engagement with these new audiences.

For instance, Stern expects that more people will watch this year’s World Cup online (via social, digital or mobile) than on TV. In 2014, more than 3 billion people watched the World Cup on television sets and 280 million watched online. Those numbers are flipping.

What this means: Four years ago, soccer fans turned online only when they weren’t able to watch TV. Since then, the widespread adoption of mobile devices and consumers’ desire to free themselves from sitting in front of a television set has dramatically changed the landscape worldwide. This year, online is their first choice. Smart brands need to position themselves to put forth their strongest messages on the platforms that are the first choice of their audiences.

And it’s not only audience habits that have changed. So have audiences. Mander notes that Gen Z — the group of consumers ages 13 to 17 — spend huge parts of their days consuming mobile content, and they have little patience for anything other than bite-sized content. Video strategies developed during the days of cable — or even the early days of online video — will struggle to reach this audience. The brands that succeed will be those that release themselves from the shackles of past thinking (even last year’s thinking) and learn to deliver effective messaging in super-short bursts. Keep the story simple and don’t attempt to deliver more than one message. Get to the point in a second or two, rely on bold and tightly cropped visuals to tell the story, and use words and other graphics sparingly.

Hein says consumers of online content will engage for longer times and more often when brands authentically align with cause-related marketing. It’s a strategy that carries some risks, but it’s clearly an effective tool to connect with the new audiences of online video.

I’m always suspicious of predictions that begin, “This year will long be remembered as the time when…” Sweeping historical shifts, particularly in marketing and consumer behavior, seldom are so clean-cut. Like an intricate quilt carefully lifted from a grandmother’s closet, historical shifts are unfolded bit by bit.

With each unfolding, more of the full design becomes apparent. We now see enough of the full design of online video to recognize it as something entirely new. We see enough to begin shaping entirely new strategies for new audiences.

No more illustrated radio. No more cable TV viewed on a smartphone. This is the year that winning brands will respect the distinctive power of online video.

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