Published October 2017

So, full disclosure: The agency I work for gets paid to make videos. I, myself, make some of them. So you might think that the shorter the video, the better, right? But the truth is, making a video—long or short—is not as transactional as many marketers might think. There’s a whole list of factors to consider—audience, subject matter, placement, and objective, to name a few. But in the end, in today’s rapidly evolving media landscape, the rules we’ve always heard about video length no longer apply.

A decade ago, things were different. The power of social media was not fully realized, and YouTube’s total domination was still yet to come. Long-form series drama—like what we see today on HBO and Netflix—was in its infancy. Broadcast TV still set many standards, and the digital side of marketing had little context with which to inform a new approach. It seemed that, while the transition to digital had begun, the proverbial iron was not “hot.” Not yet, anyway.

For some 50 years, the standard runtime for a video ad has been 30 or 60 seconds. This tradition is based entirely on a 1960s-era transition to a new programming budget model. Until that time, television programs were generally funded by direct sponsorships from a single product or company—but that was about to change. More and more often, shows were produced by the TV studio itself, with advertising appearing in the form of a commercial break where numerous sponsors purchased slices of ad time. Within a given hour-long program, an average of 9 minutes was dedicated to advertising—and that 9-minute chunk was cut up into neat 30-second slices.

As advertising transitioned into the digital space, internet marketers adopted this same model. It was just expedient. Since companies were already producing 30-second commercials for television, leveraging the same format enabled easy distribution online. And even as digital has eclipsed broadcast over the last 5 years, the industry has held fast to that 30-second mark for both B2C and B2B ad content. Introduction of the 90-second commercial, for instance, just meant another slice of 30 seconds tacked on.

But today, the equation is completely different. Compelling content from players like Netflix and HBO has reinvigorated the industry—and served to re-energize the consumer’s tendency to watch longer pieces. This creates an interesting dichotomy—apparently, as our attention span is getting shorter, it is also getting longer.

In late 2016, popular YouTube vlogger Casey Neistat published a piece about a first-class seat on Emirates airlines. The value of the ticket was $20,000, and he received the upgrade for free. His video, which covered all the inside details of such a trip, was over 9 minutes in length. In just weeks, it racked up nearly 20 million views—and today, about a year later, it has over 45 million views. What does this say about consumer attention spans?

This video about an accidental first-class seat racked up 20 million views in just 2 weeks.

Those of us who’ve been working in marketing for a decade or more have certainly grown familiar with the adage “shorter is better.” After all, the alleged “science” suggests that the shorter the video, the more people will watch it. The longer the video, the higher the audience drop-off. However, this is an incomplete picture. Appropriate length of content is now determined by something different: story.

What does that mean? Well, a lot. Is the story compelling? One 30-second ad over here that cost nothing to produce got a ton of views, while that one over there that cost half a million got terrible results. Both 30 seconds. Why is that? Story. Did the ad suck? Was it funny? Visually stimulating? Annoying? Emotionless? (Yeah, definitely emotionless.) What did anyone learn from it?

Yet, story has a second meaning too. The contextual story is about the consumer—about where and when they meet that product message for the first time. Is it at the front of the funnel? Or the end? Has the audience's attention already been grabbed, so they now have more of a tolerance for a deeper message? How well do they know your brand?

Normally, as a creative director, I’d be in a position to walk this line, the rationale being that if the content is at the front of the funnel, it should be short. Seems simple enough, right? But I would be remiss to ignore so many signs that the old way of thinking (and it’s important to remember that when I say “old,” I’m referring to only a few years ago) no longer applies. At this year’s Cannes Lions, one of the most acclaimed winners was an ad from Gillette for their new razor. Running time? 3 minutes. Yup. A 3-minute ad for a razor—and everyone loved it.

The success of the Gillette ad shows that a long-form piece of ad content can live at the front of the funnel—if the message is compelling.

Moving into 2018, content is once again king. If your ad’s message is powerful and emotionally resonant, appropriate length is defined by what is best for the message. Can you say it in 60 seconds? Great. Could you say it better in 3, 5, or even 10 minutes? If it’s entertaining or compelling, in today's paradigm, the rule is: whatever works.

Leveraging of influencer marketing (a space quickly losing its lustre) has left a mark as well. A common format for social media vloggers and non-traditional news outlets like VICE hangs between 5 and 20 minutes. And—again and again—audiences show a willingness to hang around and watch. Even how we think about cut-downs is different. You don’t really need 30-second cut-downs, because most channels allow up to 90-second placements. If the user doesn’t want to watch past 30, they have that choice. We’re no longer locked into neat little 30-second pizza slices.

It’s fascinating to be a witness to this transition, especially as a creator. Hopefully, the next time you approach the task of creating a video and getting a message out, you can free yourself from the notion that nothing should be longer than 90 seconds. In the end, only one thing matters: make it good. In a world where we worship at the altar of the ‘Skip’ button, the opportunity to settle down and take in a good piece of content is relished, and the opportunity to feed that desire should be too.

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