Beyond the three second rule: what brands can learn from TV and film

Thought Leadership
harvey.cossell recently published this article by our Head of Strategy, Harvey Cossell, looking at the storytelling styles brands can adapt from film and television to boost content effectiveness. They’ve been kind enough to let us reproduce it below.

With more money pouring into digital media at the expense of traditional broadcast channels, marketers have had to change the way they create video content. Much of the talk, and execution, has been around short-form video—so much so that you might be forgiven for thinking there’s little room for long-form content.

But you’d be wrong. Good social video content doesn’t have to be short. What’s the next step after drawing people in? It’s keeping them watching, whilst giving them the opportunity to spend more time with your message.

Of course, this is not a new concept. Great advertisers have done this for decades. The current shift, however, is in how we go about it. In the previous world, interruptive communication dominated. Today, there are a number of lessons to be learnt from film and TV experts in creating narrative arcs that hook and intrigue audiences, keeping them on the edge of their seats for what in today’s fast-paced world could be deemed an eon. And with Facebook Watch video platform rolling out, these experts may very well be a smart place to look for inspiration.

There are a huge number of different arcs out there. Some are more applicable than others, with a handful that could be extremely effective on social channels. I’m not suggesting these represent the holy grail for social storytelling, but they offer inspiration for us all as we look to create longer-form videos.

Take the opening scene from the very first episode of “Breaking Bad.” This is a non-linear narrative arc that created a huge spike of intrigue, pointing the story at a dramatic point near its middle. “How we got here,” as the arc is sometimes known, is one that encourages longer viewing of content and could very easily be applied to social storytelling.

Then we have “the only way is up” narrative arc, which kick-starts the action by letting an unspeakable horror take place in the very first scene, getting the really bad stuff over with quickly so that things can only get better. The trick here would be to ensure the low point is not just an invitation for a problem/solution advertising construct, but something that builds and builds, leaving the viewer curious as to where the story will end.

Another, “It began with a twist of fate,” involves the story’s main character becoming involved in a dramatic event due to a simple, everyday decision, and the story develops from there. “Is it always like this?” sees a character walk into a situation that seems bizarre or out of place. “Pride before fall” quickly introduces an unlikeable character who the audience wants to see knocked down. And the “fake-out opening,” my personal favourite for its sheer audacity, involves something happening in the first five minutes that turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with the theme of the rest of the story.

Cultural Resonance
This only touches the surface of the narrative arcs, but, while we know a great introduction is the key to engaging and maintaining an audience, we need to obviously apply these arcs in a context when we are telling stories that are often shorter than the length of a film trailer.

But all of the above will pale into insignificance if your content lacks cultural relevance. We know brands need to build connection with their audiences around what consumers are interested in, retaining a relevant and authentic link to their products or services. This resonance is what will drive the greatest engagement.

The opportunity here is to augment this via narrative arcs that build intrigue and excitement in the opening few seconds of your content, giving that resonance a chance to shine. If you do, you will be duly rewarded. We have seen this with adidas for years; for example, its GamedayPlus video series receives an average view time of over four minutes. Another good example of cultural relevance leading to successful long-form content is Heineken’s Worlds Apart film — an interesting twist on the aforementioned “pride before fall” arc.

The long and short of it is that you want to be thinking long and short. Brands need to be ambitious and, in my view, think bigger, particularly as Facebook Watch takes hold. Doing so requires thoughtful consideration to what kind of storyline you want to create. And for that, we can adapt the scripts from video’s big-screen counterparts.