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Vertical Content: Not a fad, this is what content looks like now

Among my earliest travel memories is the moment where you would ask a fellow tourist to take a photo for you. You would hand over your phone, take a few steps back, and prepare for what would surely become your new Facebook profile picture. But then you realise - oh man, this guy is a total novice, he's holding the phone vertically! So you would do that thing with your wrist, where you motion like you're opening a jar of marmalade. 'Horizontal, thanks,' you would say.

But just like millennials don't ring each other (they call each other, they've never heard a phone ring), these conventions come and go with the passing of time, and perhaps the most interesting content shift in 2017 has been the emphasis content creators are putting behind vertical formats. But how did we get here, and is this a format worth investing in?

Two decisions that changed everything

In 2011, Snapchat came along and it forever changed the way we would hold our devices. First with photo, and later with video, Snapchat showed us that the most natural way to share photos with your friends was through a standard portrait shot. Its introduction was a little clumsy, and we all had that one friend who refused to comply, making us constantly turn our phone sideways to see their snaps. But by and large, it made sense for the brand, and for users. Snapchat wanted to make the most of your mobile phone's on-screen real-estate, and users wanted to snap quickly, which is undeniably a faster exercise when you're doing it in portrait mode.

Snapchat wanted to make the most of the on-screen real-estate, and users wanted to snap quickly.

Recently, (after it was already cool, mind you), Instagram took giant strides by introducing Stories, enabling content creators to share a fifteen second moment of their time - in vertical, of course. And then, not one to be complacent, the app went a step further and overhauled its legacy square format for standard posts, enabling users to upload images in portrait format, or in the more conventional 16:9.

And these moves changed everything. A recent study from KCPB found that Americans spend 29% of their time watching video vertically, compared with only 5% in 2010. The evidence is compelling; Our friends at Snap Inc. and (most recently) Instagram have single-handedly modified user behaviour and have reprogrammed the way young people hold their devices.

It just made sense

Just in case you didn't notice, our smartphones are rectangular, elongated, candybar shaped devices. With the exception of this egg-shaped Nokia from 2003, they have always been this way. Mobile apps too, have always worked this way.

And while we occasionally turn our phone sideways to focus on 'feature-length' video viewing, it isn't really practical unless you're in for the long haul, because as soon as a notification pops up and takes you outside of the video content, you would be ejected from the horizontal abyss and returned to vertical. This is what your phone software wants you to do.

Vertical is natural. This is what your phone software wants you to do.

But this isn't just an opinion, with a study on mobile phone usage confirming that phones are held upright 94% of the time. The research also found that mobile users rarely rotate their phones to view horizontal videos fullscreen. Frighteningly, this means that the horizontal videos that marketers have been producing since, well forever, have not been experienced the way we intended.

And it might have taken a decade, but at long last, content sharing services (YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram) have arisen from their horizontal slumber, and are now capable of delivering content to users in a format that actually fits theirs screens - it wasn't too much to ask, was it?

Opportunities for Brands

For brands, vertical content gives them the opportunity to own more of the user's device. Take the below examples as an introduction to this concept.

It's the same image, shown in two different ways. The image on the left exclusively occupies the entire phone, whereas the image on the right has capitalised on just 1/3 of the device's real estate, sharing the spotlight with another user's post.

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It works in this instance because the image on the left tells the story just as well (if not better) than the image on the right. Sure, some of the left and right pixels are lost, but they weren't essential anyway. It was a worthwhile trade-off to crop the image to gain the value of additional screen space, and occupy a little extra of the user's device.

Another example, this time by GAP. As part of their 'I Am Gap' summer campaign for 2017, the fashion label experimented by running all of their campaign content in vertical format. Put simply, the execution worked. The vertical video delivered an authentic user-generated-style of content that made audiences feel as though they were part of the story - they weren't watching an ad, but just videos of hip young people dashing around in the sun. It was modern storytelling told in the way that humans speak to humans, which evidently, is a completely different method to how brands speak to humans. The vertical format helped to sell the message.

It was modern storytelling told in the way that humans speak to humans, which evidently, is a completely different method to how brands speak to humans.

Note the below videos have been designed with mobile in mind, so if you're viewing on desktop you won't get to enjoy the native vertical experience that was intended.

Reprogramming your creative

If you're working in an advertising agency, this might be a hard pitch to sell in, because the typical objection would be something along the lines of 'first we build the story, and then the format comes later'. Trust me, I've heard it all before. And while generally I would agree that storytelling should trump the platform, we have now reached saturation point where our owned channels are offering unique content opportunities that are now so different from before, that they require a bespoke content approach. And here's the punchline: Vertical video isn't just something you can create by cropping your 16:9 campaign video - you need to start with the format and the intricacies of the channel, and be prepared to work backwards.

Vertical video isn't just something you can create by cropping your 16:9 campaign video. You need to start with the format and the intricacies of the channel, and be prepared to work backwards.

Consequently, new formats like vertical video require a mindset shift. Marketers need to dictate to their creative teams that the format must now come first, and when art direction, script writing and storyboarding begins, creatives must consider finding a way to tell the story that fits the vertical format.

Have you experimented with vertical video and imagery? If so, what results did you experience? Leave your feedback in the comments below.

Ben CampbellComment