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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Great lengths: Optimizing video across platforms

October 14, 2021 | By Jessica Patterson – Independent Media Reporter @jesspatterson

Make it short. Show real stuff. This may seem obvious, but these are best practices in video length and content authenticity for Gen Z audiences.

Gen Z, born between 1998 and 2016, spends a lot of time watching videos on social media. And last year, Gen Z’s video consumption increased: Snapchat reported that Gen Z watched over an hour each day of video content on social media apps alone. They value video more than any other media platform, by a margin of roughly 2-to-1 over social, gaming, music or Google search, according to a recent study by DCN. They prefer video, specifically user-generated content, due to its relatability and personability.  

Understanding that Gen Z viewers and consumers have different behaviors, values, and attitudes when it comes to video is important because it can impact your audience of the future, your strategy, and your revenue. It will also help you withstand shifts in viewer tastes and larger shifts in the media landscape. Building relationships with this generation of viewers, readers, consumers, starts now.

Video length on TikTok

Video length varies by platform, and there are a lot of platforms to choose from. Gen Z favors Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, according to a Pew survey in 2021.

Video content on TikTok must be extremely short. In fact, 50 seconds is long, according to Erin Weaver, Group Nine Media’s Senior Director of Audience Development. For Gen Z-favored platforms Snapchat and TikTok, video length needs to be short and videos need to be fast-paced, according to Weaver. “On TikTok, I consider anything between 30 and 60 seconds to be almost the default. And then slightly longer is over one minute up to three minutes. We’ve seen some success with longer videos, as long as they’re really engaging and interesting.”

#DCYoungFly hitting the #CrankThat at the #HipHopAwards [https://www.tiktok.com/@bet]

Brittiany Cierra Taylor, director of audience development at BET, says she sees similar results. “Our audience development team has been trying out shorts and they’ve seen that they were amazing in getting new views, new viewers and from an ad perspective, we see more ads, more earned views. That shortness really is the key because we noticed that the sweet spot on TikTok is seven seconds where you see that jump that engagement,” she said.  

“Our TikTok partners always encourage us to create shorter and more succinct videos, as they do tend to perform well on the platform,” says Kelsey Alpaio, an editor and producer with Harvard Business Review’s Ascend brand for young professionals, “But, that doesn’t mean long videos are off limits. The majority of our top-viewed videos are more than 50 seconds long. If people are interested in the content, they will stick around.” 

Video length on YouTube

On YouTube, videos that are 2-4 minutes long work well for Harvard Business Review, but they also see success with videos that are longer, about 10-14 minutes each.

Scott LaPierre, Harvard Business Review’s senior editor for multimedia, says that for YouTube, trends around length are similar. Length is less important than topic and storytelling. LaPierre says HBR’s more authentic and honest videos on YouTube, which are casual, host- and personality-driven, perform about as well in the long run as their more traditional content. “Both have about an even number of breakout successes, and comparable average performers,” he says. “The video’s topic, and how compellingly it delivers on that topic are still the primary factors in the number of views and how long people watch, whether traditional or authentic in style.”

Short and medium-length videos at about two to nine minutes each work best on YouTube, for a broad reach. And longer (10-15 minutes) seems to work to deepen engagement with established fans, LaPierre said. “Shorter videos seem to have broader reach while longer videos seem to have deeper engagement. Long for us is around 10-15 minutes. Short is two to four. Most of our current video lineup is in the middle: six-to-nine-minute range. Anything over about 15 minutes does not perform great on our channel.” (Live video is a different conversation where lengths over 15 are more the norm.)

Optimize for story

“It really depends on the goal of the story and whatever length makes the storytelling complete,” says Zainab Khan, associate director of audience, video at The New York Times. “We might do a months-long investigation that merits a 12-minute video. What we see, because we edit our videos for pacing and storytelling, if a video is longer, we get more overall watch time. But we’re really rigorous about thinking about length so it fits the needs of the story. And in some cases, that means the best way to share a story means to do a quick 30-second snippet, showing viewers what’s happening on the ground.”

All of the digital content companies we spoke to said that storytelling trumps minutes and seconds. Video content should be as long as it needs to be, to tell an engaging story. LaPierre says, “Topic and storytelling generally trump length or style. So, my rule of thumb is: make it as short as possible, but no shorter.”

Content authenticity

Best practices for user-generated content are that video content must be low lit, not super polished, and not have a high production quality.Often, it is a selfie-style cell phone footage. It’s casual, host- and personality-driven. It is concise, engaging, and easy to produce. It shows people talking about what they care passionately about.

Harvard Business Review aims to make some of their videos in that user-generated style, LaPierre says. “For me, the best way to get authentic-feeling video is to have people talk about what they care passionately about,” he says.

Production values

Ascend Multimedia Producer Andy Robinson explains they try to find a sweet spot between having a polished feel and showing the real world. “My rule is, show the real stuff whenever possible. We’ve been leaning heavily on less-overly produced elements in our video content. Audiences can smell something that is highly produced, over scripted, over thought.”

Group Nine makes a point of putting people as the focal point of their UGC content, explains Weaver. “For PopSugar, a tutorial on applying makeup does a lot better than a product review or something that’s mostly focused on beauty products or a workout. You should see people doing the workouts, not so much like a description of the movements.”

At The New York Times, best practice for finding authenticity in a creator’s work is to have a deep understanding of the company’s values and to find common ground with their audience, Khan says.  “It’s really important for us, when we want to build trust with our audience, we show our authentic selves. We literally put our reporters on screen in a way that helps the audience understand who is doing the reporting,” Khan says.

Gen Z has a bullshit detector

Gen Z’s desire for authenticity has been well documented. They want brands to be transparent, authentic and trustworthy. Gen Z audiences have spent their lives surrounded by digital technology. They’re incredibly discerning and know how to filter content that lacks the right tone, language, relevance or value. “What I love about Gen Z is that they hold companies more accountable,” Taylor says. “They’re doing the fact-checking, they’re doing the homework, they’re seeing if your staff resembles the world, if your content resembles the world year round. Is your message consistent and congruent in the content that you showed me? That’s actually one thing I love about them because it forces brands to be authentic.”

Authenticity is the way to grow audiences, Taylor explains. “I think that if you want to stay around, that is the basic component that audiences are resonating with. So, if you’re not going to be authentic, you’re not going to meet the KPIs you want, you’re not going to grow your audience, you’re not going to hit your revenue… So, from an audience perspective, a revenue perspective, authenticity is just the way to move forward.”

Be real, not trendy

“In the long term, if your identity and authenticity are dependent on a trend, you only last as long as that trend,” Khan says. “On the other hand, if your company has a handle on its core values, and what sets you apart from your peers and competitors, you can choose which trends to follow. And it means you can withstand shifts in the media and shifts in viewer taste.”

LaPierre says content authenticity connotes honesty, vulnerability, transparency, and relatability, which may not always have been top priorities for publishers. “And, we’ve seen some of the distrust in media that can result,” he says. “Show your flaws, show that your content is made by real people with real concerns that overlap with your audience’s, and show your work–it’s about building a trusting relationship over time.”

For their audience of the future, digital content companies need to put real intention behind the content they create and innovate constantly. As one expert put it, you need to think about who you’re talking to, and create content that is meaningful to them. It’s a lot of effort trying to please Gen Z, but if you’re not putting in the effort, you’re not going to get the results. This is your future audience, after all.

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