The Ideal Video Length:
In Search of the Sweet Spot
Video is many things to many people. Its flexibility as part of your overall content marketing strategy is what makes it so attractive and rich with possibilities. Frequently, Backlot Media is asked about the ideal video length. You may have read that videos should be “short, but not too short”, long enough to engage, not so long that you wake with a keyboard-shaped imprint on your face. In some cases, this is true, but video length is not etched-in-stone. The purpose of the video and the audience watching it will determine a video’s appropriate length.
There are many interesting and revealing statistics about video content length, here are some examples.
What David Waterhouse of Unruly Media Says
David Waterhouse studied video ad length and social shares, what he found was quite interesting:
|Share Frequency||Average Video Length|
|Top 10 most-shared videos||4:11|
|Top 50 most-shared videos||2:54|
Why is this interesting? Most people think that users aren’t willing to watch ads that are more than the length of a forced YouTube pre-roll. These stats show that it is not the case. The average length of top 10 shared video ads in the study was over 4 minutes. If the video engages, it will be shared. In this interview, Waterhouse contends that the attention span for social video ads is much longer than for TV ads, stating “people’s attitudes to advertising have changed. Rather than being interrupted by a brand, they want to be engaged by one.”
In some ways, this idea is contrary to the “shorter is better” idea. Do these stats tell us something useful? Yes. Any data that pokes holes in our assumptions is good. It makes us think more deeply when searching for answers. The thing that stands out for us is that these are ads! If people are willing to watch ads that are longer than 4 minutes, what about other types of videos? What is the common denominator? It can only be engagement. If a video is compelling or offers something the user wants (information, entertainment, a laugh) it will be watched and perhaps shared.
What Wistia Says
Wistia does advise that shorter is better in this video, but doesn’t really tell you how short. The narrator says: “This video is going to be short and to the point. Why? Because after analyzing the engagement data for millions of videos, we can definitively say that shorter is better.”
Definitively? So all video should be short? To be fair, the video’s narrator does also state that “it is not that simple”, however he never says why. Nor does he tell you what length the video should be. Not as definitive as all that after all.
If you look at the video engagement metrics that Wistia studied, and followed what they tell us, we’d all be making video with a runtime of less than 1 minute. The graph that follows shows that users stayed with video longest when it was under a minute. Wistia goes on to say that “shorter videos are better for getting people to watch the whole thing“.
So, here is the conundrum. Unruly Media’s data tells us that the average length of top 10 shared video ads was 4 minutes (relatively long), and Wistia states “shorter is better”. Which is correct? Both probably. The optimal video length will likely fall between the two extremes — ultimately determined by other factors: the quality of the video’s emotional engagement and most importantly, the audience’s motivation.
Emotion and Engagement in Video
Wistia may be right that “on average” viewer retention is higher when videos are shorter, but one missing piece of the puzzle is what the viewers were watching and what emotions were evoked.
Television advertisers have known for some time that they can reduce channel hopping (or “zapping” as it is called by some ad folks) if the ad quickly engages a viewer emotionally. Recent studies, such as one summarized in the article The New Science of Viral Ads by the Harvard Business Review, have found that although emotion is the key to engagement and retention, it’s not just emotion. According to the study, a video viewer will watch a video for longer when it is an “emotional roller coaster”. The Harvard study suggests that this fits well with how we process emotions. Emotions are transitory. We experience joy momentarily, then it wanes. We experience sadness, then it wanes. If we feed the user too much of one emotion for too long, the intensity will wane, as will their interest. In essence, we never want the audience to achieve “joy-gasm” or “sad-gasm”. Getting them much of the way there, then terminating the evoked emotion by replacing with another, and then restoring the one we terminated, keeps the user interested. It’s like inserting a series of cliffhangers intermittently within a story, rather than at the end where a cliffhanger is usually found.
You’ll notice if you think about successful programming from HBO, the story lines of several characters are followed within one episode, each evoking different emotions and each with a cliffhanger. First, we watch character A’s story and become emotionally engaged. It ends and we wonder what will happen to character A next. Then we segue to character B’s story. It evokes emotion rising to a near “emotion-gasm” but stops short, and is replaced by yet another character’s story line. The model works, even for the worst reality television programs.
The Harvard study also found that the user must find the emotional “hook” early on. The two emotional hooks that worked best to increase engagement were joy and surprise. The researchers found if one of these reactions was elicited early on, retention increased.
Viewer Retention and Motivation
We’ve learned that emotion is an important factor in viewer retention, but what about the viewer? The time a person will commit to watching a video must be influenced by their own motivation. We cannot see these motivations but we can make some educated guesses. If a person is seeking information to support a purchase, they may be motivated to watch a lengthy and detailed review of a product or service. Likewise, if a viewer is motivated by a need to learn a skill they may be willing to commit more time to watching. How much time they’ll invest is another question, but it is safe to say that users who sign up for video training to learn guitar, for example, are emotionally invested (not to mention financially invested) and will likely put in more time than someone watching a services overview video.
Distilling the Retention Factors
So what does this all mean? To find the ideal video length you have to honestly assess your video content and know your audience.
- There is no universal “sweet spot” for video length.
Appropriate video length depends on the viewer’s motivation and whether the video can hook them emotionally. It might be safe to use this equation: the length of the video may increase relative to how much it engages.
- Emotional engagement increases retention
People will watch for longer if the video evokes emotion, early and often.
- An emotional roller coaster is the best way to increase retention
A longer video shouldn’t be a one-note wonder. Video that creates an ebb and flow of many emotions engages viewers for longer.
- The motivation of the audience is important
People may watch for longer if there is a payoff. Educational videos like how-tos, guitar lessons, and product reviews, may hold a viewer’s attention for longer because they are motivated and invested. Even these videos should try to hook the viewer emotionally.
If you are considering a video for your product or service, let Backlot help you determine the right video length. Get a free video production quote.