It’s the holy grail of digital marketing: the viral ad, a pitch that large numbers of viewers decide to share with family and friends.Several techniques derived from new technology can help advertisers attain this. In our research, two colleagues and I use infrared eye-tracking scanners to determine exactly what people are looking at when they watch video ads.
We also use a system that analyses facial expressions to reveal what viewers are feeling. These technologies make it possible to isolate elements that cause people to stop watching and to find ones that keep them engaged.
In addition, they make it possible to determine what kinds of ads are most likely to be shared and what types of people are most likely to share them. Here are five big problems online advertisers face, along with solutions that have emerged from our research.
Problem 1: Prominent Branding Puts Off Viewers
When people watch ads, they focus on a few things, such as the actors’ mouths and eyes. They also focus on logos. This isn’t the boon it might seem: The more prominent or intrusive the logo, the more likely viewers are to stop watching—even if they know and like the brand. Why? People seem to have an unconscious aversion to being persuaded, so when they see a logo, they resist.
The solution: utilise “brand pulsing.” Smart advertisers unobtrusively weave the brand image throughout the ad. Experiments have shown that this can increase viewership by as much as 20%. One of the best examples of the technique is Coca-Cola’s animated “Happiness Factory” ad.(Like all the other videos referenced in this article, it’s available on YouTube.) It depicts a fantasy version of what happens inside a Coke machine when someone inserts money. A Coke bottle is shown repeatedly, but each appearance is quick; you can almost imagine that the story would work without the bottle. In fact, a good question to ask when conceiving an ad is: If I removed the brand image, would the content still be intrinsically interesting? If the answer is yes, viewers are more likely to keep watching.
Problem 2: People Get Bored Right Away
After recording viewers’ expressions with video cameras, we use automated technology that measures the distances between various parts of the face to identify smiles, frowns, and other expressions that correlate closely with emotions. (Previous research relied on human coders; automating the process improves accuracy and allows for a much larger sampling.) After analysing thousands of reactions to many ads, second by second, and tracking exactly when people stop watching, we found that keeping viewers involved depends in large part on two emotions: joy and surprise. To maximise viewership, it’s important to generate at least one of these responses early on. Traditionally, though, advertisers have constructed narratives that escalate toward a dramatic climax or a surprise ending. Such commercials may have worked on TV decades ago, but today’s online viewers need to be hooked in the opening seconds.
The solution: Create joy or surprise right away. Two videos stand out for eliciting these emotions at the start. In one, the familiar Apple spokesman is joined by Mr. Bean, who dances crazily for the remainder of the spot. (The video, it turns out, is not an official Apple ad but a well-crafted parody of Apple’s “Get a Mac” series.) Bud Light’s “Swear Jar” ad opens with a surprise: When an office sets up a jar that workers must pay into as a penalty for profanity, one employee immediately curses because he knows the money will be used to buy Bud Light. Both videos hook people instantly.
Problem 3: People Watch for a While but Then Stop
Although the Mr. Bean video initially succeeds in attracting viewers, it doesn’t keep them watching. That’s because the joy the video creates is delivered at a fairly constant level. We’ve found that ads that produce stable emotional states generally aren’t effective at engaging viewers for very long.
The solution: Build an emotional roller coaster. Viewers are most likely to continue watching a video ad if they experience emotional ups and downs. This fits with psychological-research findings about human adaptability. When we come into a warm home on a cold winter day, or when we receive a pay raise, we experience pleasure, but the feeling is transitory; the novelty soon wears off. So advertisers need to briefly terminate viewers’ feelings of joy or surprise and then quickly restore them, creating an emotional roller coaster—much the way a movie generates suspense by alternating tension and relief.
The “Swear Jar” video makes skillful use of the roller-coaster technique. The opening scene, which sets up the ad’s conceit, lasts just 15 seconds. The remainder of the 60-second spot consists of seven scenes with bleeped-out profanities, each conveying its own surprise and humour. By delivering a fresh dose of these elements every six seconds or so, the ad holds on to its viewers.
Problem 4: People Like an Ad but Won’t Share It
Getting time-crunched viewers to watch a 60-second ad is no small feat, but it won’t necessarily make the ad go viral. Experiments I conducted on my own demonstrate that even though people may enjoy an ad themselves, they won’t always send it to others. In particular, I found that although shock may get people to watch an ad privately, it often works against their desire to share the spot.
Bud Light’s “Clothing Drive” ad uses the same cast, setting, and general structure as “Swear Jar.” Here, an office worker tries to create enthusiasm for a charity drive by offering a Bud Light for every article of used clothing donated. The characters respond by removing clothes they’re wearing, and the scenes that ensue contain increasing degrees of nudity (private parts are obscured by black bars). Like “Swear Jar,” “Clothing Drive” garnered high viewership. But unlike “Swear Jar,” it was not widely shared. The nudity was too shocking.
The solution: Surprise but don’t shock. Consider Evian’s “Roller Babies” ad, which features computer-generated infants roller dancing to a hip-hop song. It uses all three strategies suggested above. The brand is relatively unobtrusive but appears frequently throughout the 60-second spot. Within seven seconds of the opening, viewers see an infant on roller skates moving his head rhythmically, like a rapper—a scene that’s sufficiently surprising to hook them. The rest of the spot consists of 11 different scenes of infants executing delightful dance moves. Unlike the Mr. Bean video, in which the dancing is continuous, this ad cuts from scene to scene, modulating the viewer’s joy and offering repeated surprises. “Roller Babies” has been viewed more than 50 million times on YouTube. In the world of viral ads, that’s a home run.
Problem 5: People Still Won’t Share the Ad
Even when an ad has been perfectly tailored to go viral, only a subset of those who watch it will share it. In fact, my research shows that whether or not an ad is shared depends as much on the personality types of viewers as on the ad itself.
The solution: Target the viewers who will. I’ve identified two attributes of people who frequently share ads: Extroversion and egocentricity. The first is hardly surprising, but the second is, at least on the face of it. Why would egocentric people be inclined to share—an act that’s usually associated with helping others? I believe that in many cases it’s because they are looking to increase their social status. Their primary aim in posting or e-mailing an ad link isn’t to make others joyful; it’s to display their own taste, media savvy, and connectedness.
It’s hard to target viewers on the basis of personality type, but that’s apt to change as social media evolve. For instance, companies are already placing ads on the pages of Facebook users who frequently post links and are reaching out to Twitterers who have large followings. The ability to find these archetypal sharers will become just as important as the ability to reach certain demographic groups has traditionally been.
FW: Hey, Check Out This Ad
As viewers gain increasing control over which ads they sit through, advertisers will have to become more consumer-centric. They’ll need to think harder about the value a video offers to the viewer, instead of considering primarily how well the video serves the brand. The result will be ads that are both more effective and more enjoyable.
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