Nowadays, short-form content is all the rage. Just look at TikTok’s astounding popularity amongst younger generations. It has lead to the development of new and compelling video formats that are mostly found in feeds with a passive discovery mechanism. Or as the younger generations (ominously) call it: the algorithm. In this post, we’ll take a look at how businesses should respond to this trend. We’ll also discuss where short-form video fits within a wider creative content marketing strategy.
What is short-form video?
Short-form video is not quite the same as videos that are short. It refers to videos that are roughly 06-60 seconds long, organically distributed through feed-orientated social media platforms, and consumed overwhelmingly through mobile devices. They are typically, but not always, shot vertically. This is to keep in line with the screen they’re typically consumed on. You can find short-form videos on TikTok, Instagram Stories, YouTube shorts, and the like.
What about 30-second ads? Are they also considered short-form content? Not in this context. We’re really referring to formats created for organic distribution rather than paid. Another example are short films. They’re historically considered short-form, but in the online world where video has been led by YouTube formats, something that’s 5 to 10 minutes in length is actually considered a mid-length piece.
How short-form video works
Short-form video is mostly passively distributed. The user opens up the app in question, presses a button, then receives a stream of content, which they may choose to watch or skip depending on their interests. Depending on the app, the feed is influenced by different things. Instagram’s feed is influenced by who you have chosen to follow, whereas TikTok focuses more on your engagement level with the content and what the algorithm thinks you’re most likely to engage with next. YouTube Shorts sit somewhere in the middle, combining subscription factors, demographic and other data into a complex recommendations algorithm.
Quickly capture people’s attention
Short-form video is geared exclusively to offer instant appeal. There’s a 1-3 second window where users will decide whether to keep watching or move on to the next thing. So you only have a few seconds to try and capture people’s attention. Combined with the short nature of the content, this means that most videos follow a “gag” format. Every video that works immediately sets expectations of what the audience will receive, then swiftly delivers or subverts it.
People primarily watch short-form videos on their smartphones. Because this usually happens in in public, most people turn off their sound and watch videos in silence. This means all of the storytelling and creative execution needs to be primarily visual. Videos can still include music, though. After all, some of the most successful short-form videos use music extremely effectively. But it’s important to keep in mind that the essential message and narrative of any video needs to be communicable without sound, such that the essence of it still holds together.
So what can you do for existing videos? You can adapt existing videos by including subtitles and visual overlays where audio or speech is critical to understanding. You can also visually point out to users that the essential “gag” is tied to the musical/aural aspect of the video.
When to invest in short-form video
From a business and marketing standpoint, it can be tricky to work out if and when to invest in short-form video. It’s not a reliable way to build an audience or ensure returns, because short-form video discovery is mainly led by algorithms, and less influenced by things like subscriber numbers and historical brand/channel performance. Even experienced creators should generally expect that for every video that gains traction, 30 videos will not.
So it’s important that you’re comfortable with uncertain and unreliable returns. Any business that approaches short-form video with a performance marketing mindset centered around ROI and optimization will find things very challenging. Even one viral success on TikTok or YouTube Shorts probably won’t do anything for the bottom line over the long run. A million hits on TikTok is not going to represent the same value as a million visitors to your website.
It’s absolutely possible to build a brand as a short-form video creator, though. But it’s good to note that brand salience external to the short-form video platforms tends to have only a minor bearing on the effectiveness of distribution. Unless you’re willing to continuously and repeatedly build up your identity as a short-form video creator. However, this can take many months and years. Not to mention, you would probably need to create hundreds if not thousands pieces of content.
So when is short-form video effective?
Short-form video is particularly effective when you can present your brand expertise in a visual format. For example, you could show the creation or function of your product, or demonstrate a process/action quickly. The purpose of these short videos is to provide value to an audience likely unfamiliar with your brand/product, and help them understand a bit about your brand value proposition.
Another way you can use short-form video is by advertising and promoting long-form pieces. If you’re creating a podcast, hosting webinars, or creating longer pieces for YouTube, then short-form platforms are a fantastic way to show clips and trailers of your longer content.
As a rule, if you’re investing in longer-form video, chop up your creation into clips and adapt those for short-form distribution. Your primary goal should be to encourage consumption of the bigger piece – likely to generate a deeper level of engagement with your brand.
Tips for getting started
Make sure the premise or “set-up” of the video is clear in the first couple of seconds
Ensure your video is fully comprehensible with the sound off. If that’s not possible, you should include overlays and captions!
Consider whether and what sort of music can enhance the entertainment value of your videos, and edit each one with specific tracks in mind
Be clear what you want audiences to do after they watch your video. Is there another piece of content they should watch? Should your audience remember something, or take a specific action?
Create lots and lots of videos. It may take hundreds before you find something that works. This is normal! Keep going.