Vertical Video Really Might Be More Engaging

“Vertical Video” or portrait format will become a mainstay video ad format by 2018. That’s just one surprising, and admittedly jarring, prediction from Sarah Wood, Co-Founder and CEO of Unruly, the viral video analytics company that is probably best known for the viral video chart.

You can read all her really interesting predictions around video advertising and the online video industry in 2017. But it’s her vertical video prediction that gave me pause (if you’ll pardon the pun) for thought.

Wait, What, DoubleTake… Let’s Rewind

Referencing data from Zenith’s report that says 2016 saw video consumption on Mobile devices take the lead from consumption on fixed devices such as laptops and smart TVs, it seems that 2017 really is the time to start getting your head around producing video in formats that are native to mobile devices.

While the emerging habit of watching video on mobile devices has been a fairly apparent trend for some time, the eye-opening statistic is that vertical video is estimated to be somewhere between 6 and 9 times more engaging.

On first glance, this metric might shock you, but the reason that vertical video is more engaging becomes more apparent after a little digging into user behavior. Vertical video is basically more engaging on mobile because that’s how the majority of people hold their phones. In fact, users don’t rotate their phones horizontally, 94% of the time.

And the reason most people don’t rotate their phones is that it’s the most comfortable way to hold the device and they want to retain the ability to use core functions on their mobile at any time. For example, using the home button. In that sense, vertical video actually enables mobile users to engage more easily, by inhibiting them less. Thus engagement metrics of vertical video rises.

The Play For Attention: Vertical Video Vs Landscape Mode

Consider for a moment that skippable video ads are “a thing” because most of us hate pre-roll ads interrupting our access to content. Unskippable video ultimately forces an ad experience on the user, whereas offering the option to skip, means the user is giving permission to play if they don’t skip.

By embracing the importance of that little UX change (and specifically the value to users), the Martin Agency transformed that restriction into the very successful video ad campaign for Geico, Unskippable, which Ad Age named campaign of the year in 2016.

So, back to the topic at hand, although, it is extremely easy to dismiss the artistic merit of vertical video, considering the fact that the user ultimately prevailed in the skippable discussion led me to wonder if I’m not missing some important reflections on my own video consumption habits. It seems that how people actually use their phones is a much more important consideration than what people can do on their phones.

Importantly, anything that diminishes our ability or overrides our capability to use core functions of our phone is likely to be used less. That seems to be a core design consideration in Facebook’s new 50-person video chat according to The Verge and that fact alone should give readers yet further pause for thought on the pre-eminence of the user in all forms of digital marketing, not just search.

“While video chatting, the company stresses that Messenger’s other functions remain intact. So you can still send texts, stickers, and other animations while video and audio are transmitting.”

In my experience, vertical video often feels awkward to watch, with my favorite criticism being that videos shot in portrait mode often looks like, “you’re riding out an earthquake.” Yet, quite a few times in 2016, I found myself watching entire videos of people talking directly to camera in the vertical format.

Another thing I noticed was that I usually consumed vertical video when were people ranting about politics on Facebook. And despite many often expressing views that I’m not even mildly interested in, for some reason I remained engaged.

While I passed off the vertical video format as an amateurish mistake, in hindsight, there was certain intensity that the portrait format provided where I could get “up close and personal” with a perspective I would not normally have time for. As a viewer, I found myself almost rubbernecking, in that I was locked into the moment and I couldn’t turn away.

Now I realize that in watching (and not skipping), I have inadvertently validated the format and effectively given permission for more vertical content. I’m one of 9x more engaged people behind that vertical video ad metric.

By contrast, Google Hangouts On Air has been a great tool for any industry to curate their own experts and host their own talk show, and it’s not hard to find discussions I’m genuinely interested in sitting in on. Yet, frequently, I find myself disengaging from the conversation and opening a new tab while keeping the audio on and treating the format like radio.

It’s a little incidental thing, but the landscape format does mean you often notice other distracting details that mean you can easily break your attention away and switch off. Maybe the background of the Google Hangout is that person’s home which isn’t decorated to your tastes or a cafe or their computer screen is lighting their face in a creepy way.

The desktop video call style presentation can leave all parties wondering where their focus and attention should be – on you, on the wall behind you, in the camera, where exactly? The camera, often at the top of the laptop or desktop screen can mean that it’s pointing directly down the speaker’s face so it’s elongating their features or revealing a bald patch that maybe they’ve never noticed. Or it’s pointing up their nose.

When’s it’s a case of meeting people for the first time or complete strangers via social networking, there are simply too many other “social status” and “personality” cues one can take from amateur landscape video that either alienate or endear the audience. And nearly all of those judgements and assessments one might make are unconsciously formed from ultimately irrelevant and distracting details.

With that in mind, I’d say there is a fairly strong case to be made that amateur landscape format video shot from a desktop web cam suffers to much the same extent as vertical video shot on a phone. If both formats have their issues in live streaming, then the merits of more intimate framing win out. And there’s little doubt that portrait mode emphasizes the person over the setting.

Just compare these two views of group video chat:

Google Hangouts exampleGoogle Hangouts

Blab group video chat exampleBlab

It’s an unscientific and arbitrary comparison, but my gut feeling is that Blab just looks better. And there’s nothing more likely to make you stand to attention than to see lots of faces staring back with equal screen estate than the main screen flipping between whoever is speaking (as it does on Google Hangouts). You’re gonna put on your best face for that video chat.

A talking head in a vertical video format feels like they are talking directly to you, and demands the same attention as you would give your nearest and dearest on a video call. The constrained proportions to the side reduce distraction from the speaker and increase the sense of urgency that you are participating in an exclusive, private or live moment.

Furthermore, the overall sense of candour a video call over mobile conveys, provides the viewer with “mitigating circumstances” under which they might evaluate their own user experience. Usually, that greater context provided by the “liveness” of the event is yet further incentive for the audience to forgive other traditional production considerations such as the poor quality of the shot or framing. Which could mean their focus is more on what is happening and less on other distracting details. If you’re hosting the conversation, that means more attention on you.

Fast Forward Beyond Video Ads: Other Strategies That Could Embrace Vertical Video

Unruly’s prediction around vertical video was primarily made in regards to video ads, so it’s worth underlining that vertical video is not going to take over everything. We’re not going to get vertical cinemas or put vertical TVs in our living room.

However, the key insight here – or selling point – of vertical video is simply that if video is frequently consumed on mobile, it makes more sense to optimize the customer experience for that format. Therefore, aside from video ads adopting the vertical format, I also suspect that online talk shows and webinars might go the same way.

Hosting niche industry talk shows on Google Hangouts On Air, YouTube, Soundcloud, iTunes and web seminar platforms like, BrightTalk, has been in the digital marketing and growth hacker handbook for awhile now, but I think this year the industry talk show trend has the potential to go mainstream over mobile devices.

The end of 2016 may have seen Blab and Meerkat shut down, but it also saw Chewbacca Mom make $500k from a Facebook Live video (shot vertically), Slack add video chat, Twitter announce native integrations for Periscope and Facebook launch video chat in messenger for up to 50 people. There’s been never been as much dynamism in livestreaming and group video chat since Google launched Hangouts.

However, most niche industry talk shows are produced with desktop and laptop based live streaming tools which means they’re not necessarily fit for task in 2017. And the good news is that there are quite a few new and interesting takes on group video chat that take advantage of key features on mobile that could really enhance the talk show format.

Designed for tablets and the Apple Pencil, FocalCast allows all members on the chat to annotate or draw directly to a single collaborative screen. Similarly, Wrkbench enables multiple participants to simultaneously contribute links, photos and annotations to a single whiteboard. And in terms of an app focused on the vertical video format entirely, The Call List, offers in-app purchase based monetization options live event creators and, rather than requiring sign-in, calls the attendee directly so that participation is as easy as picking up a phone call.

So, while it is already possible to watch or broadcast any type of video on mobile, there is a difference between adapting the job to the tool or finding the right tools for the job. The potential reach of online talk shows marketing and branding strategy stands to greatly increase with the adoption of mobile centric formats. What’s more, there’s enough anecdotal evidence that a truly “mobile video” experience, portrait mode and all, really is more engaging.

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About Jonathan Allen

Jonathan Allen is the President of Longneck & Thunderfoot, a brand publishing company which is part of the Columbia Startup Lab, an incubator program based in New York City. He is also formerly the Director of Search Engine Watch (2009-2013), one of the longest running news publications on the search engine marketing industry.

  • Randall Tinfow

    Thoughtful and useful post.

    It’s a given that most video is consumed on smart phones, which are the overwhelming choice for younger demos, but even 55+ are now around 44%.

    One of the things that you didn’t mention is the delivery/discovery medium. Before producers run out and start shooting vertical videos, they must consider whether they will be displayed on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or in the browser. These mediums have their own constraints and sweet spots. For example on Facebook I like square.

    We’ve found that the best use of the vertical format is for video that will go out as email links. Since a large majority of email is now read on phones, it makes perfect sense. The engagement time lift for vertical is 78%. The more important conversion lift is over 70%. Good overview here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/monster-opportunity-vertical-video-randy-tinfow