What is the optimal length of a video ad?

There’s no perfect numerical answer, but throughout the industry, the answer you’ll get is along the lines of “short.” Snackable content this, shorter attention spans than goldfish that, blah blah blah. However, depending on the platform, shorter videos aren’t necessarily the way to go.

Analyzing 24,000 YouTube and Facebook videos with more than 10,000 engagements apiece, video analytics firm Tubular Labs found a drastic difference in the two platforms. The average Facebook video was just under a minute and a half at 81.22 seconds. On YouTube, the average video was more than 14 minutes.

YouTube versus Facebook

Looking at the top trending YouTube videos of the year, the average length was 4.76 minutes. While the average was significantly affected by the 13-minute lip sync battle between Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart and Jimmy Fallon on the latter’s show, only one video – the Clash of Clans SuperBowl spot – was close to a minute. Most of the rest, including Love Has No Labels from the Ad Council, were around three minutes.

“When it comes to video, step one is, what’s your goal and objective? What are you trying to do?” says Greg Jarboe, president of SEO PR. “On YouTube, you search for the video because you have a problem to solve or there’s something you want to learn or you just want to be entertained.”

“Search” is the operative word there. People go on YouTube specifically to seek out videos. On the other hand, they generally happen to stumble upon the videos in their social feeds, which are typically used in shorter bursts and on smartphones.

In July, Business Insider reported that across the globe, the average person spends more than 20 minutes a day on Facebook. Since the average person also checks their phone 150 times a day according to Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, you can infer that all 20 of those minutes spent on Facebook aren’t consecutive. With so many more distractions and updates to read, people also probably aren’t as inclined to spend two minutes watching President Obama read mean Tweets about himself or eight minutes seeing Justin Bieber sing karaoke in a car. (Both of those made YouTube’s top 10.)

“YouTube thinks watch time is such an important factor that it changed the algorithm three years ago to reward videos with longer watch times. In order for your video to do better on YouTube, people need to watch it for a certain length of time,” says Jarboe.

That watch time is undoubtedly longer than three seconds, which is the engagement metric used by Facebook.

A silver stopwatch on a white background

Facebook versus Instagram

Facebook and Instagram are similar, and not just because one owns the other. Consumers generally use them in the same way and as a result, marketers do, too. They also have video length in common; Instagram videos have a 30-second limit.

“We’re seeing a variety of approaches work,” says Jim Squires, director of market operations at Instagram. “Some brands may tell their story in a six-second stop-motion video showcasing product, while others will engage their audience with a 30-second movie trailer.”

Squires names Michael Kors as one brand doing video particularly well on his platform. In September, the retailer became one of the first companies to a run an international campaign with Instagram’s marquee ad unit, promoting a shoe line in the U.S., Canada, France and the U.K. All four countries showed strong ad recall and brand awareness; in the U.S. specifically, Michael Kors saw a 22-point lift in ad recall.

The ads were all 15 seconds long. The average Facebook video is more than five times the length and the top trending YouTube videos seem like The Lord of the Rings trilogy by comparison. So is shorter always better for social media platforms?

Not necessarily. Though Vine doesn’t have an ad model, many brands create their own content and promote it on Twitter, the video platform’s parent company. None of that content exceeds six seconds. And still, according to Tubular Labs, brands are increasingly stepping away from Vine, which only makes up about 4 percent of branded content.

Periscope and Meerkat

Live-streaming video platforms like Meerkat and Periscope are even less clear-cut, since their use is so much more open-ended. Unlike videos, you don’t have to start from the beginning, and can pop in and out.

“[The optimal length of a Periscope is] very dependent on the brand, their target audience, the content of the Periscope, and the ultimate campaign goals. But it’s important for brands to keep in mind that if they’re looking to attract a large crowd of viewers, it can sometimes take a little bit of time for people to tune in once the stream goes live,” says Alex Josephson, director of brand strategy for the U.S. and Canada at Twitter. “We’ve found that it helps to promote a Periscope in advance to users know to tune in.”

Josephson adds that brands tend to use Periscope to give consumers content they can’t get anywhere else: product launches, backstage at fashion shows, behind-the-scenes footage from shoots. There was even a Periscoped session, the first one ever, at this past Advertising Week.

Periscope and Meerkat haven’t been around long enough for there to be the same kind of engagement data that exists for YouTube and Facebook. The ephemeral nature of the streams also make it difficult to gauge view counts.

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No matter the platform, there is no optimal length. How long a video should be depends on a million different factors, but there is one universal truth: the content should be good.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all world,” says Jarboe. “What we’re finding is the fun part about video is now segmenting. The different pieces are for different people who have different intents, and the new marketing challenge is to look for it. It’s a complex picture.”

Summary

How long should a video be? Not to give too much of a cop-out answer, but there’s no optimal length. Like email, video has some quantifiable properties, but emails are also contained in your inbox. Video is everywhere, which gives it a lot more variables.

Different lengths are better suited for different platforms. No Instagram video is longer than 30 seconds, while a good Periscope can go on for an hour. Facebook videos are, on average, much shorter than those on YouTube, which people seek out. The top trending YouTube video of this year was the music video for “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).”

Ultimately, the length of your video takes a backseat to its content, which should be tailored to different platforms. But you should be doing that anyway!

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