You can’t ignore vertical video any longer – why 9:16 matters right now

Vertical video isn’t new. In 2013, Snapchat launched Stories; by 2016-17, Facebook had cloned the feature onto Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and its flagship app. And in 2018, we saw the launch of IGTV and YouTube vertical ads – the last of the major video holdouts – signalling that as we move into 2019, adopting vertical video is no longer a choice that brands and marketers are free to make.

So why then do the majority still struggle to utilise it effectively, or doubt its appeal? Whether it’s ephemeral or long-form, on Snapchat Stories or on IGTV, there remains pushback from those who are reluctant to stray from the tried and tested landscape video format.

12 years in the making – understanding the global shift from 16:9 to 9:16

The resistance against vertical is rooted in what has long been considered best practice for video. Landscape (16:9) seems natural because of the way our eyes sit side by side, allowing us to absorb more visual information from left to right, rather than from top to bottom. Social media has since ripped up the rulebook on video – many times over. But we have an early disruptor to thank for vertical video’s origins: Steve Jobs, who launched the first Apple iPhone in 2007. Since then, smartphones have found their way into the pockets of billions, meaning more people are using their phones to record and watch video in vertical.

Today, 96% of online video consumption is on mobile, and cries for users to turn their phone 90 degrees and watch in widescreen are increasingly met by resentment of having to do so. Despite it breaking almost every single rule of traditional video, the ergonomics of how we hold our phones has meant that vertical is now the more convenient option for the user. And in today’s world, convenience is the only metric that matters.

But vertical video doesn’t seek to entirely eclipse landscape formats. Our eyes aren’t changing position any time soon, so there will always be a place for cinematic content. It is, however, crucial to note that not all video is created the same; different formats serve different purposes and platforms. What works on television or on YouTube won’t suit Stories or Snapchat Discover; what belongs on Stories doesn’t automatically belong on IGTV.

Stories transformed social sharing in 2013 – but in 2019 it’s just getting started

As Stories has been around for longer than IGTV or vertical ads, most brands, marketers and creators feel comfortable using it. And with Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat regularly introducing new Stickers and Lenses to the feature, Stories has never been more popular or easier to use. But as the feature anchors itself deeper in consumption habits, brands need to be constantly getting smarter in their use of it – not getting comfortable.

Stories’ was designed to be easy to use, while feature updates such as Polls, Mentions and Music Stickers keep it fun and engaging for users and ensure mass adoption. But where do brands fit in? The challenge, as ever, lies in differentiation. Brands, marketers and creators should focus on broadcasting content that’s more creative and more thoughtful than that which their audience is capable of creating themselves, or is used to seeing from friends. How else would they stand out?

Stories should be short-form, experiential, attention-grabbing, interactive videos that take the audience on a journey or provide an otherwise unseen element of your brand. And the clue is in the title – it should tell a story. So even if your video only lasts for 15 seconds, when done well, it has a strong chance of leaving a lasting impact.

Stories can also be far more engaging than regular social updates. Nick Speakman is the head and founder of Sporf, a social-first sports publisher with a combined reach of 15 million people across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. He tells us the reason for this is because the Feed is dictated for the user, whereas Stories offers a choice. Nick says: “As sophisticated as algorithms are, often in the Feed we have to scroll through posts we don’t care about, to get to the content we do care about. But with Stories, you can quickly scan through from left to right, using the avatars of your friends, family and favourite brands to decide what you feel like watching that day.

“The user makes their selection, meaning that when they land on your Stories, you already have their attention – because they have actively chosen to give it to you. And if your content is worth coming back for, they’ll make that choice again and again. For brands and marketers not to be taking advantage of that nearly six years after the format’s social premiere is a travesty.”

Vertical video has the power to captivate audiences – when leveraged well

But it’s not just Stories which has the power to keep users engaged. Vertical outperforms other video formats in two ways: firstly, vertical content, like that seen on IGTV, fills your entire phone screen. This makes it harder for users to click elsewhere, or worse – to a competitor’s post.

Secondly, the screen’s limited width means only one point of focus can be highlighted per frame, drawing users in and holding their attention. This forces brands to be creative with composition – but the payoff is that users are less likely to get distracted by secondary events happening on-screen.

Because they fit the same frame and live on the same platform, a common assumption amongst brands is that Stories and IGTV content is interchangeable. On the one hand, Stories is a short and snappy experience, but IGTV draws more parallels with YouTube; it is a destination for long-form, documentary, vlog or episodic content – only in vertical.

Even those who understand its similarities with YouTube are making the common mistake of forcing 16:9 content into a 9:16 frame. In some cases, creators will proactively rotate their video file before uploading, then prompt the user to flip their phone when watching. But it’s also not uncommon to see wide videos uploaded directly to IGTV, forcing users to squint at a shrunken down version. These creators are choosing to ignore the fact that Instagram has made the experience of watching landscape video on IGTV intentionally jarring. But, rather than meeting the convenience needs of the user, they are choosing to put their own convenience first – a fatal error to make in any aspect of social media marketing.

The News Feed of tomorrow – and why it matters today

Vertical video matters now more than ever because Stories is currently on track to overtake the News Feed on both Facebook and Instagram in terms of growth and user engagement. Mark Zuckerberg first predicted it would in Facebook’s Q4 2017 earnings call and he reiterated the same in Q3 of 2018. Meanwhile, Instagram is preparing to push IGTV’s external campaign, whilst also testing a ‘tap through’ model for its Explore Tab – perhaps the first step in a complete transition towards a tap over scroll feed model.

Whether it’s sized 16:9, 1:1 or 9:16, video marketing requires brands and marketers to think outside the box. But in the age of people-led storytelling, vertical fits the frames of our bodies. Vertical videos were made to capture personal moments – illustrating powerful stories which resonate with the people watching them. At its core, marketing is nothing if not a means to tell stories, and great stories will always be told – but the way we tell these stories has evolved.

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