The first ever piece of ‘Talking Head’ content was created 132 years ago. It holds powerful lessons for B2B marketers when it comes to leveraging video today.
Ever since people first looked at a moving image, we’ve known that video is different. It communicates on a range of sensory levels that are simply not available to words, pictures and other media. These are the reasons why video has such a huge impact whenever it arrives in a new space, reaches new audiences, or does so via a new format.
I know this because I’ve been watching first hand as marketers enthusiastically embrace the possibilities of B2B video content in the LinkedIn feed. Since we started rolling out new video capabilities a few months ago, the speed with which influencers and brands have integrated them into their marketing strategies has been impressive.
Creative people have always responded to the different levels of engagement that the moving image enables. If you want proof, take a look at the first piece of video-like media ever created. It was photographed, incredibly, in 1886.
Talking Heads have been around a lot longer than you think
This first piece of video-like content (a series of still images that could be looked at in sequence to give the impression of movement) is an interview with the legendary scientist Michel-Eugène Chevreul, who had just turned 100. The photographer, Nadar, effectively created the first ‘Talking Head’ media interview – the same format that many brands still use for B2B thought leadership today.
I find it mind-blowing – partly because you’re watching someone who witnessed the French Revolution; partly because this early use of moving imagery is so savvy – a lot savvier than a lot of video content today. Nadar didn’t just embrace the strengths of his new format; he also understood its limitations. The footage he shot, and the way that he presented it, were designed to overcome these limitations and unlock the full potential of what we might call video today. There’s much to learn from how he did it.
The moving image has come a long, long way since 1886: sound, colour, fantastic camera angles, spectacularly high-definition, where do you stop? However, it’s still true that video is better at some things than others. Acknowledging these strengths and weaknesses is the key to getting most from the format.
To show what I mean, here are five things that video content is great at, one thing that it’s not so good at, and a range of techniques that can work around that weakness to ensure you’re maximising engagement from the video content that you create. Follow them and, like Nadar, you’ll create video content that audiences keep finding it hard to look away from:
Video is great at capturing visual attention
Human attention responds a lot faster and more intently to something that’s moving than something that isn’t. This makes absolute evolutionary sense given that a moving object in your field of vision (Lion? Bear? Snake?) raises the stakes when it comes to working out what it is. In an environment like the LinkedIn feed, a piece of video content has a big head start over even a striking headline or a beautiful image when it comes to capturing immediate attention. Once someone is watching the video, the constant movement provides another opportunity to keep recapturing people’s attention – provided you make it a priority to give the audience things to pay attention to.
Video is great at communicating emotion
Content that floods people’s brains with emotion creates stronger memories, and is therefore more influential, than content that doesn’t. Video doesn’t have emotion to itself, of course: a great image, a wonderful piece of writing, a heart-breaking song, are all capable of delivering it. However, video has a far bigger emotive arsenal at its disposal because of the way it communicates on different levels. Fuse soundtrack with dialogue, plot and visual imagery and you have many more potential triggers for an emotional reaction among your audience.
Video is great at conveying character and tone
Our instinctive judgments about one another aren’t formed just by what people say but by how they say it: facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and how these different elements come together to convey character and personality. This is the huge, huge advantage that video brings to B2B influencer and thought leadership strategies – and it’s vital to make full use of it. Aim to get across the personality of your experts and influencers; their passion for what you do; not just what they think – but what they feel. It’s not always easy – but pushing to help people express themselves on camera always delivers better results.
Video is great at bringing together different perspectives
A written blog post can be a great vehicle for expressing individual opinion – but written copy is a lot less effective at exploring the intersection of different points of view. You can read the dialogue of two or more people discussing an issue – but it’s a lot more effective and engaging to watch and listen to that conversation unfolding. As host of The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast, I know that audio formats can do this brilliantly – but video’s capability for facial expressions and body language adds whole new dimensions to the way you can engage audiences with an issue. Watch an episode of The B2B Dinner for Five and you’ll see what I mean.
Video is great at telling stories
Because of these advantages, video can be the ultimate storytelling medium: it can communicate on different levels, show a plot unveiling rather than relying on words to describe it, maintain attention through visuals, and drench the audience in emotion. More than anything, video aligns with the experience of hearing a story. This is a format that we’re conditioned to sit back and enjoy. We expect moving images to entertain us or stir our emotions. If you can persuade your audience into this mindset then you’ve got a great creative canvas to play with.
But… video can only go at its own pace
Video has huge advantages for marketers – but it also has one critical disadvantage. It can only unfold at a predetermined pace. There’s little option for your audience to skim through it, quickly glance down the page and grab the most pertinent information. Video is a relatively inefficient way of communicating information compared to the speed at which most people read or the multi-tasking they’re capable of when listening to audio. Your audience must wait patiently until the end of your video to hear everything you have to say. And in today’s media environment, that can feel like a big ask.
Human attention isn’t getting shorter – but it has become more efficient. It’s evolved to make quick, heuristic judgments about what’s worth engaging with in full and what isn’t. Video takes away the capacity for doing that. Start watching a 3-minute film, and you’re taking it on faith that those three minutes are worth investing. That can easily lead to disappointment and frustration. If video from your brand fails to deliver value, then you are priming that audience to scroll past your video next time around.
How to embrace video’s strengths – and overcome its one weakness
This isn’t an argument for excluding video from your B2B marketing strategy – the advantages I’ve listed above are far too powerful for that. However, it is an argument for thinking carefully about when you use video, and what you use it for. As marketers, we need to make sure that we’re playing to video’s strengths, using it for what it’s best at, and not taking liberties with an audience’s time and attention. If your video simply involves someone reading out information that could have been pasted into a blog post, then maybe that information would have worked better as a blog post.
Incidentally, this is exactly the approach Nadar took when it came to that first Talking Head interview. His sequence of stills appeared alongside copy that explained what his subject had to say. This was through necessity rather than choice – but it’s still an object lesson in figuring out video’s specific role in the communications mix. Nadar used copy to communicate the in-depth information – and his new, moving pictures to show character, express personality and capture visual attention.
Long-form video can work – but only if you work hard at it
Aside from how you use video, it’s important to pay close attention to the length of a film when you edit it. Time-poor audiences are very likely to check the length of a video before they make the decision to watch it – so being concise can be a real selling point. However, it’s possible to take this too far. I’ve been involved in some fascinating discussion threads on LinkedIn around the idea that the optimum length for a brand video is six seconds. I’m all for creative constraints and it’s certainly true that you can capture someone’s attention in that timeframe. However, if B2B marketers end up just sharing extended GIFs then audiences will quickly start switching off. Respect your audience’s time – but also respect the fact that video must play to its strengths to justify watching it in the first place. There’s a balancing act at work here but it’s a far easier balancing act if you make sure every second of your film is as interesting as it can be.
How to make any B2B video more compelling viewing
Video is about moving images – and if there’s nothing visually interesting going on then it’s not being used to the full. The Nielsen Norman Group published some fascinating eye-tracking research last summer that shows how even a simple Talking Head video can have its effectiveness transformed by including elements that change, move and give people new reasons to keep watching. You get big advantages from being creative: including interesting elements in the background, switching camera angle, moving from one speaker to another, and especially, overlaying relevant graphics onscreen.
Nader instinctively understood all of this. His footage of Chevreul doesn’t just show the old man talking. We get clips of him swinging his cane, laughing and joking with others around a table, reading books – anything to give the audience something interesting to look at. More than anything, Nader made sure to use moving images to communicate character. He captures a rich sense of his subject’s stubborn, eccentric and inherently interesting personality. He shows how he reacts to others. These are techniques that any video marketer should be looking to apply today.
I believe that video is the most exciting format available to B2B. It’s far more exciting that Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality because it’s far more flexible, accessible, and capable of being put to a broad range of creative uses. Video is as exciting today as it was when it was first being developed 132 years ago – but it’s a lot more exciting when you embrace its strengths and weaknesses in the same way as those early video pioneers did. Let’s challenge the constraints, respect our audience’s time and attention and make sure we’re using a visual and emotive format in a visual and emotive way. B2B video will be more effective when we do.
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