This is the golden era of content, and with it comes a massive amount of custom video production.  This leaves marketers asking “what is the optimal video length?”  In this mobile world of short attention spans and opposing binge-watching behaviors, how long should a video be to be effective?  Should it be short and simple or long and cinematic?  Where is the video sweet spot for brands?

There’s a grand conflict between the growing popularity of short videos, merely seconds-long, and the ever-increasing, hours-long video bingeing trend.  According to a recent Deloitte study, 90% of Millennials binge-watch, reporting an average of six videos, or about five hours, in a single session, while Netflix revealed we spent 1.33 hours per day in 2016 streaming on the platform.  There is more content consumption than ever before, and it seems to suggest people are hungering for longer storylines.  Conversely, at the other end of the scale is the wildly popular short-form video content found on platforms such as Tasty which attract about 500 million people each month.

Today the TV industry is taking a cue from the success of snackable digital video ushered in by disruptors such as Vine, driving the rising six-second ads trend.  Content creators are attempting to improve the viewer experience by emulating digital platforms with six-second units, or “sixes,” which seemingly introduce a vote for shorter video-length standards.

Yet, not every brand can, or should, live within a six-second timeframe.  Some stories require a build over time and people increasingly hunger for episodic content.  This is where the confusion lies.

Facebook plots this dichotomy on a spectrum that tracks “lean in,” or shorter video moments, and “lean back,” or longer video moments.  Content interest is driving at both ends of this spectrum.  The selected video behavior is a function of place, platform and need at the time of viewing.  Viewer need is the chief factor to consider when deciding on length, as it typically drives platform behavior.  Spark Foundry plots video length along a need state spectrum, where shorter video serves a more functional purpose and longer video unfolds emotional purpose.

The psychology of video viewing is a necessary consideration.  Following the Tasty example, where recipe videos are shot simplistically from above, BuzzFeed found when holding a phone and viewing that it feels like the viewer’s hands are making the recipe.  This becomes an important factor in connecting to the media.  Here, it’s not about length first, but the physicality of the environment and the functionality of the content to demonstrate capability.

The drive for quicker storytelling seems to be keeping pace with the growth of the mobile lifestyle.  The more omnipresent our mobile life, it seems, the shorter the messages should become, yet as marketers it’s important to stop, look at the full cultural picture and ask what need the video is serving.  Google put it simply: “Short ads work hard, but don’t do the same work.”

While the human brain is capable of processing information in milliseconds, longer stories are what drive favorability.  A YouTube study on video length revealed longer content drives higher consideration.  When evaluating attention, they found the first three minutes of the video carried the highest attention, making it imperative to capture attention up front.  So, despite the benefits of longer video length, timing plays a factor in capturing and sustaining interest.  How the storyline rolls out matters.

Every brand has a different consumer need, pattern and cultural context.  The need is what drives length.  Know the best practices, but do not be beholden to minutes and seconds, because the world of video is vast, explosively creative and highly experimental.

When it comes to crafting custom video, there are rules to follow.  Length is dependent on the consumer need and cultural context at the time of viewing.  It’s important to know these five essentials before you begin:

  1. Know Where They Are 
    Where is the consumer as they are viewing?  Consider the expected viewing behaviors of that environment.  Is it on a laptop at home, or on a crowded, commuter-filled subway?  Is it on Snapchat or Hulu?  The environment matters.
  2. Target the Time
    When are they most likely to be viewing?  Time and context dictate the physical bandwidth.  Are they at work trying to find answers quickly, or on vacation relaxing?  Even time of day, morning vs. night, is important.
  3. Mindset Matters
    What is their mindset?  This can be tied to life stage, or maybe a shared psychographic across life stage.  Is escapism and adventure the need, or is it confidence and mastery of skill?  There are often clues in the tonality of the platform, publisher and content to which they typically flock.
  4. Build to Expectation 
    This gets to the heart of need.  Expectations are set outside the category, so take your brand out of the equation for planning purposes. Look at the cultural expectation; where is the attention of your audience?  Understand why this is happening, emotionally.  “Viewers” are people.
  5. Culture Is the Guide 
    Take a barometer of the culture at large.  This influences the intensity of need.  Think about the impact of innovation and novelty, or conversely nostalgia and comfort.  What is the tone of the culture?

Remember, know your audience and know your purpose. This will help marketers and content creators hit that video length sweet-spot, because there is no one-size-fits-all formula for great content.

This article originally appeared in MediaVillage.

Author: Gretchen Ramsey, Senior Vice President, Content Strategy, Spark Foundry