You’re not Woody Allen: the rookie’s guide to online video

I wrote my first online video script recently, and it was brilliant. It had texture, colour, humour and a perfectly timed jazz number that would give viewers goosebumps.

It was self-indulgent, aimless, and would never work online.

After attending Stephen Follows’ Online Video for Content Marketers course in February, hosted by the Content Marketing Association (CMA), I reviewed my script and the flaws were glaringly apparent. I had fixated on superficial details instead of thinking about the audience. The result was 2 minutes of aesthetically pleasing fluff that any right-minded person would’ve clicked away from in 20 seconds.

I won’t pretend that after 8 hours of Stephen’s wisdom and 18 of the CMA’s mini pastries I’m now an online video connoisseur. But I did learn a lot about where to start in a virtual world teeming with viral toddlers, unboxing specials, and dogs doing yoga. If you’re also on the verge of diving into the moving image abyss, here are a few things that can help you to form a relevant idea and execute it in an engaging way.

  1. Determine a concrete goal

You’re making a video about music software. You already have a great concept in your head:

A misfit teenager, a bit of an outcast, steps onto the stage at his high school prom. He awkwardly fumbles with a laptop and sets it up on a small table. The entire school stops, stares at him. One single note rings out, lonely and strong (sort of like him). It’s followed by another. The bass kicks in. Everyone erupts into a cheer and starts dancing. He looks at the camera, winks. End.

But what does it have to with your end goal?

Before you start brainstorming brilliant executional ideas, you need a concrete brief. What is the video supposed to do? Who is it supposed to target?

If you’re trying to get 16–25 year olds to sign up for a free software trial, the above idea might be appropriate. But if you want to convince college tutors to purchase a classroom-wide package, it probably won’t be as effective.

Ready, set, action:

Knowing your audience and having a clear target outcome will help you decide the best way to shape your content.

  1. Appeal to emotion

A man sits in an abandoned bumper car. A single tear rolls down his cheek. Someone in a kangaroo costume hops over and hands him a mint. The sun comes out and an ABBA song starts to play, quietly at first, and then swelling into full force before the brand logo pops up on the screen. End.

You might think your video is poetic, ironic, or groundbreakingly honest. But it doesn’t mean anyone else will.

According to Kissmetrics, the average website bounce rate is 40.5%. According to Microsoft, the average attention span is 8 seconds. When online, it’s very easy to ignore what we’re not interested in. However, we do respond to content that triggers emotions.

The emotional tools you use in your video will depend on the context and the end goal. Humour can make an audience feel happy or surprised, so they connect with you. Provoking users to feel anger or coercing them into sadness can make them want to take some sort of action.

Stephen calls it connecting with the ‘inner caveman’. And the best way to do it is through storytelling.

Ready, set, action:

If you want people to stick around to watch your video, you need to catch their attention on an emotional level.

  1. How to tell a good story

“What did Kathy’s husband say when he found out?”

“Did you hear what happened to Timothy in Accounts?”

“I saw the weirdest thing on the bus today.”

Humans can’t resist a good story. It’s hardwired into us, and therefore the ultimate tactic to engage an audience.

If you’re lucky enough to have creative freedom and a big budget, there’s probably plenty of room for good storytelling. But if you’re tasked with creating a video update about the quarterly report for a very corporate financial institution, the scope probably isn’t as generous.

But it’s still important.

Stephen recommends hunting for a story, or creating one that fits the brief. It might mean looking through the company’s history until you find something interesting you can use as an angle. It might even mean adding a fictional touch (within reason).

Ready, set, action:

Wherever you might find it, saying what you need to say through an engaging story means people are more likely to pay attention and take in your message.

  1. Get the details right

The brief: create a video to share on the brand Facebook page. It should highlight the dangers of hearing loss and encourage young people to get their hearing tested early.

A young supermarket assistant is stocking shelves in the cereal aisle. A young woman walks up and stands beside him. They reach for the same box, move their hands away at the same time, reach again, turn and smile at each other. It’s awkward, but cute. She says something, but he only hears a bit of a mumble, so he smiles, nods, hands her the box and walks away.

The camera angle changes. A young man is looking at cereal in the grocery store. A young woman looks at him, walks past, turns, looks at him again and walks over. They both reach for the same box, move their hands away at the same time, reach again, turn and smile at each other. It’s awkward, but cute. She says “Andrew? I haven’t seen you since our GCSEs! I was just thinking about you the other day…” He smiles, nods, hands her the box and walks away. She watches him go, bemused.

This reaches the right target audience. It appeals to emotion (embarrassment, empathy, humour). And it tells a story.

However, 85% of videos on Facebook are played without sound. If you haven’t used captions, there’s a good chance viewers would have no idea what was going on in this video.

You can write a perfect script, but if it doesn’t suit the format, it simply won’t work. Tweaking the simplest thing (in the above case, perhaps adding subtitles) could make a huge difference for your audience. Mobile content should work on a small (and potentially silent) screen. An introductory clip at the top of a landing page should get the message across quickly and early (simple landing pages have a 70-90% bounce rate). When thinking about execution, format should be at the forefront.

Ready, set, action:

Content should be catered to the medium and the context, not to your wannabe-Woody-Allen-ego.

The final credits

By thinking about audience, emotion, and delivery, you can begin to shape an effective script before you’ve written ‘Scene 1’. Save your Academy Award aspirations for a rainy day and write a video that’s easy for your audience to watch. And, unless you are Woody Allen, maybe set the jazz number aside (for now).

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