Should Your Video Marketing Strategy Include Documentaries?

Growing up, television ads were powerful sources of influence, raising me on images of my best and worst selves.

During the 30-seconds sprints that peppered my favorite TV shows, I got to watch my ideal self as I brushed with a particular toothpaste, ate certain organic fruit, or bought the latest gadget. In other moments within those same ad spots, I was shown just how sad my life must be without that toothpaste, fruit, or gadget. This formula of fast, catchy advertisement has been a video marketing strategy norm for decades—but with the recent advent of digital media, the practice’s effectiveness has come somewhat into question. As consumers are given the tools to interact more immediately with an ever-growing number of brands, hyperbolic interrupt advertising has begun to seem more overtly obstructive and manipulative.

For many marketers and brands, this meant moving toward new digital advertising media. But for some, the internet provided an opportunity to speak about one’s brand story in new, authentic ways, inviting audiences in and (hopefully) retaining them longer.

It is from this school of marketing thought that we’ve seen a surge in a particular style of content: the documentary. Real stories about real people told in accessible ways. But is this just a passé tactic, a momentary trick that will fade as marketing technology and practices march on? Or is it possible that brands now hold a unique position to tell particular stories that haven’t been told before?

How Documentaries Killed the Short-Form Strategy

All discussion of tone or authenticity aside, one of the initial obstacles for advertisers looking to use docu-style narratives was the inherently short form of ads. While fully produced documentaries can range all over from a few minutes to feature length, there wasn’t really an established formula that could allow for an intimate human story to develop in 30–40 seconds.

The result was that as consumers began to demand more authenticity and transparency from brands, traditional short forms weren’t going to be able to keep up. Some brands have attempted to smash these sorts of stories into 30- to 60-second windows in an effort to create easily shared native advertising content. But even in the most successful among these ads—Misty Copeland’s spot with Under Armour, for example—the audience is only given the impression of a story without getting to fully experience it.

There are obvious reasons that brands might not have immediately made the jump to longer-form docu-narratives. Productions are longer and more costly, longer videos tend to have greater viewer dropoff, and, even with great source material, the skill to tell the story of someone’s life or an important event can be extremely difficult—as displayed by the relative stumblings of Misty’s feature length debut. But today, with a little creativity, it’s possible to beat those issues to produce powerful visual stories that connect with your audience. So how can you take advantage of this form in your video marketing strategy?

Understand Your Medium—Then Break It

Guinness took an excellent approach to the documentary marketing challenge back in 2014 with the release of “Sapeurs“—part of the brand’s Made of More campaign. Instead of launching a full-length documentary, they split the native advertising campaign into two parts—a 90-second spot that could be used in a wide variety of digital ad spaces or easily shared (or select costly television spaces), and then a longer seven minute piece entitled “The Men Inside the Suits,” which went into more documentary depth about each of the characters depicted in the short.

By breaking the video medium in two, Guinness was able to tell a single story in a way that broadened the number of possible spaces it could speak. In addition, the brand created a way to measure its audience’s interest in the story: interaction on the shorter piece provided a vehicle for spreading visibility and gauging initial interest, while the longer piece provided additional value, continued the story, and gave the brand a way to measure how much of its audience wanted to continue to engage with the story after the shorter spot.

Collections of shorter character profiles, long-form articles that follow up shorter videos, collections of interviews or podcast series—all these techniques can enable your brand to balance cost and format in a way that best suits its story and budget. The key is to find ways to create multiple pieces of content around a single story—each of which should contribute their own value to the audience (i.e. don’t regurgitate the same material into different formats) and give your brand a way to nurture people through a funnel of engagement with its story.

Every brand has a story to tell. But where many brands search for this story through expensive ad agencies, elaborate campaigns, or appeals to contrived ideals, documentary content encourages brands to return to their simplest foundations. Authenticity isn’t an ingredient or metric that can be slapped onto a project, but it presents easily when the people and history behind your brand are brought into focus.

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