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3 Rules for Creating Video Ads That Sell

Great video sells — over and over again. Here’s how to turn the affluent mobile users who consume more than 20 hours of online video each month into loyal customers.
How to create a video ad that sells
photo by Tomas Fano

It’s well-documented: Mobile videos sell more stuff to more affluent consumers than do traditional marketing techniques.

“Brands are moving further away from direct advertising, whose metrics are hard to calculate and into original video content — content that is created not to sell but to engage,” writes Kerrin Sheldon, cofounder of Humanity.TV in Fast Company. “They tell a story, and they create brand loyalty.”

OK, so if mobile video works to sell more goods to more loyal consumers, what type of mobile videos perform best? What’s the secret formula for creating a powerful video ad?

Ad Age’s 2013 Viral Video Awards hint at an answer: The video that earned 59 percent of the audience vote was Expedia’s “Find Your Understanding,” the story of a man’s journey from accepting his daughter as a lesbian to attending her wedding 3,000 miles away. It’s a tear-jerking ad that never once mentions the company’s name.

Why does the Expedia video work? It follows the three rules for powerful viral videos outlined in “The New Science of Viral Ads,” a Harvard Business Review article by assistant professor of business administration Thales Teixeira.

Rule 1: When it comes to branding, less is more.
“The more prominent or intrusive the logo, the more likely viewers are to stop watching — even if they know and like the brand. Why? People seem to have an unconscious aversion to being persuaded, so when they see a logo, they resist,” Teixeira notes. “Smart advertisers unobtrusively weave the brand image throughout the ad. Experiments have shown that this can increase viewership by as much as 20 percent.”

Rule 2: Begin with joy (or surprise).
“After analyzing thousands of reactions to many ads, second by second, and tracking exactly when people stop watching, we found that keeping viewers involved depends in large part on two emotions: joy and surprise,” he writes. “To maximize viewership, it’s important to generate at least one of these responses early on.” In the Expedia spot, we get joy at 00:13 and surprise at 00:33. Both pack a punch without a single special effect.

Rule 3: Build up to a climax.
“Viewers are most likely to continue watching a video ad if they experience emotional ups and downs. . . . So advertisers need to briefly terminate viewers’ feelings of joy or surprise and then quickly restore them, creating an emotional roller coaster — much the way a movie generates suspense by alternating tension and relief,” Teixeria says. We know what you’re thinking: All of this in 30 seconds? No, not necessarily.

While the vast majority of video ads are 15 to 30 seconds in length, studies suggest that tablet PC users will watch videos that are up to 30 percent longer. Case in point: The winning Expedia spot was a full three minutes and 19 seconds. Full-length clips of this duration are not viable in most pre-roll campaigns, but brands like Red Bull show that home-grown distribution can be powerful, too. (Pre-roll ads are the short clips some websites show before serving you the video content you aim to watch.)

Red Bull, which routinely shares videos of two to four minutes via social media, has some 37.5 million Facebook followers and more than 2 million subscribers on YouTube (where it’s racked up more than half a billion views).

“I don’t even drink Red Bull, but you can bet I share their videos every time I see someone in a wingsuit flying through Yellow Mountain in China,” writes Humanity TV’s Sheldon. “That’s just awesome.”

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THE PLUS

When TiVo introduced us to a fast-forward button for TV more than a decade ago, our minds were blown by jamming right past those pesky ads that stole so much of our time. Today, half of TV viewers skip three out of four ads in their pre-recorded shows, according to research by advertising network BuySellAds. Online, however, only 29 percent of video viewers skip 75 percent of the ads they see. Is it because they’re too distracted updating their Facebook status or trolling eBay? Nope. As BuySellAds explains, “Multitasking is more pervasive when watching television ads than when watching online video ads.”

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