Nir’s Note: This guest post is excerpted from Nathalie Nahai’s best-selling book, Webs Of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion.
A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world. – Alan Rickman, Actor
What Makes Video Special?
Compared to other media types on the web, video is unique in the immediacy with which it can convey a vast amount of emotional and informational content to its viewers. By virtue of the fact that video is an instantaneous form of communication, it has the advantage of being able to create a shared experience, in which people can watch the same thing at the same time, wherever in the world they might be. As with all social content, enabling people to participate in such a way can create a profound sense of connection and community, which can help generate word of mouth and amplify the reach of your message.
Unlike images or copy, video (and audio) set the pace at which a story or message is delivered. Although it is true that people can stop watching whenever they choose, the analytics tools built into video hosting platforms are making it easier than ever before to assess when people are bouncing away. This means that you can track exactly how far individuals get through a piece of content before they stop consuming it, which may help infer why the video isn’t engaging its viewers as expected. This can then inform the process by which you optimise your media, making video one of the most trackable forms of web content, as well as one of the most emotive.
When used onsite, videos can also help boost conversion rates, both in general and when used to showcase specific products or services. A private study exploring customer behaviors on electrical goods website ao.com, found that those who watched a product video were 100 per cent more likely to convert, spending an average of 9.1 per cent more than those who didn’t. In another study, customers who watched videos (of all kinds, not just those of products) on wistia.com were found to be 63 percent more likely on average to convert.
Why We Watch
From a psychological standpoint, there are various reasons why we watch videos. The first, while it may not sound particularly scientific, is just because. The internet is replete with bizarre videos that go viral for no apparent reason (remember Damn, Daniel?), and in such cases the magic dust that contributes to their success is ephemeral, hard to articulate and therefore rarely replicable after the fact.
Perhaps more tangibly, we also watch videos because they provoke curiosity by providing a pattern interrupt, a sequence or narrative in which our expectations are flouted. A great example of this is Geico’s 15-second Going Up: Fast Forward advert, a pre-roll ad on YouTube that starts in an elevator, in which a woman is telling her friend how switching to Geico saved her money on her car insurance, while a bald man with a comb-over watches on. Before we can see any more, the video cuts short as an image fills the screen displaying the message, ‘Geico. We now fast forward to the end of this ad’ with an accompanying voiceover. We rejoin the video a few seconds later to find all three are now bald, as the women scurry out of the lift complaining ‘Next time, let’s take the stairs’. The video ends with a link inviting people to ‘Click to see what happened’, and I won’t spoil the surprise by giving the end away here.
The reason this is compelling is because it disrupts our expectations around the format and content of a pre-roll ad, which we have come to expect to be linear in narrative, last 30 seconds, and be salesy and self-serving in tone. By challenging our assumptions and provoking an emotional response, our attention is piqued and we feel the pull to actively attend to the message.
This leads us to the very heart of why we watch videos – we engage with content to change our emotional state. Because video includes so many of the real-life cues we rely on to communicate with and understand one another (from facial expressions and gestures, to linguistic content and tone of voice) it is one of the most effective content types for transmitting emotional contagion. This is a phenomenon which can be leveraged at both ends of the emotional spectrum, from the delightfully cute to the painfully sad, and we need only witness the ubiquity of cat videos to see this in action. Believe it or not, scientists have actually conducted research to examine why we spend so much time watching videos of our feline friends. As it turns out, even a short clip can be enough deliver an emotional payoff, with participants reporting that they felt more energetic and positive (and less anxious, annoyed or sad) after only a few minutes spent watching cats.
While we tend to enjoy and share content that has a positive emotional valence, videos that move us towards sadness and anger can also be persuasive and powerful. A great example of this is one of Amnesty’s video campaigns, contrasting the morning ritual of a girl living in Australia, to that of her counterpart living in war-torn Syria. By presenting the narrative as a split-screen story, the left side of the screen showing the young Australian, and the right, the Syrian, Amnesty communicates not only the nominal similarities of each situation, but also the contrasting realities confronting each child.
The reason stories such as these are so compelling can be found at neurological and psychological levels. In an fMRI study conducted at Princeton University, neuroscience Professor Dr. Uri Hasson and his team set out to investigate exactly what goes on in our brains when we tell, and listen to, a story. They discovered that when two people are engaged in such an exchange, both display similar response patterns across a remarkable number of regions in the brain, an act they describe as neural coupling. Far from being a passive process, they proposed that storytelling is, in fact, an experience which, when successful, results in the teller and receiver literally getting on the same wavelength.
Achieving this, however, requires a skillful, nuanced approach. Whether you’re trying to move people to buy your product or donate towards a cause, feelings such as sympathy, sadness, and compassion have been found to play a central role in motivating us to engage with and help others. From a psychological perspective, finding a way to tell your story through the narrative of one person, as opposed to that of many, can also have a profound impact on the way in which your message is received. Charities have long known the effectiveness of this approach, and subsequent research supports their strategy.
Given that our attention actually magnifies our response to emotionally charged situations, and that the larger the group, the more our attention and ability to focus diminishes, it makes sense that a story would be most compelling when conveying the plight of a single individual. For instance, battle scenes in films tend to be most engaging when they focus on the protagonists rather than just a mass of fighting people. Since we are more likely to view a single person as a psychologically coherent unit than a group, this may explain why we tend to feel greater compassion and distress towards the former.
Described in academic literature as psychophysical numbing, it is this phenomenon that is thought to be at the root of many behavioral asymmetries we see today. The discrepancy in emotional reaction towards minor stories (such as the plight of Pale Male, a hawk evicted from his nest in Manhattan), compared to those of much greater magnitude (the desperate condition of two million homeless Sudanese), points towards a profound difference in the ways we process events. That’s why, if you’re trying to engage your audience with videos that compel them to take an action, focusing on a specific, emotional, discrete story around one individual will tend to be more effective than speaking about an abstract, homogenous group.
If you’re looking for even more research on this topic, then I invite you to download my 18-lesson PDF course on Product Psychology. I’ve asked the brightest minds in the field to share their best resources on user behavior:
Emotion And Arousal
Whether the stories we tell are large or small, complex or simple, they all serve to take us on a journey from one emotional state to another, often with many transitions in between. Depending on the length and purpose of your video, and the profile of the audience for whom it has been created, there are various different models you can use to help structure your narrative. A good place to start is by reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a seminal book that explores the journey of the archetypal hero, written by American mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Used the world over to craft compelling tales, one of Campbell’s most famous narrative arcs is The Hero’s Journey, a 12-step sequence that appears in everything from drama and myth, to religious ritual and psychological development. This pattern has been used in many of the stories we know and love today, and was even acknowledged by George Lucas for its influence on the Star Wars films.
Whether you’re using The Hero’s Journey or another of Campbell’s models, two adverts that are worth watching for their use of this approach are John Lewis’ Christmas advert, The Journey (2012), and MetLife’s insurance advert My Dad’s Story: Dream for My Child (2015). Both videos carefully orchestrate the ebb and flow of emotion to hold the viewer’s attention until the very end, at which point they leave the audience with a heightened, positive emotional climax. The importance of a powerful ending cannot be overstated, and in behavioural economic circles, there is even a phrase used to describe this heuristic. Known as the peak end rule, this term refers to our tendency to judge experiences based on how we feel at their peak (their most intense points) and at their end, rather than taking an average or sum of every moment. If you want to create persuasive videos, you can leverage this dynamic to craft emotional highs and lows.
Music can also elicit such responses, from boosting our motivation, feelings of pleasure, and relaxation, to reducing levels of pain and anxiety. Music can even increase or decrease our breathing and heart rate, depending on how upbeat or meditative the tempo, respectively. This is why, when choosing the score for your video, you should ensure that it elicits the level of arousal that matches both your content and the call to action.
Not only is music influential in grabbing people’s attention, if you’re narrating an advert or piece of video content, research has found that lowering the pitch of your voice can signal status, which can be perceived by others as dominant, prestigious and admirable, traits positively correlated with behavioral influence. However, when a person’s voice goes down in pitch, they can also be judged as wanting to be more intimidating and domineering, so it’s a balance that must be struck with care. Of course, if you’re working with video, you can also make use of non-verbal cues such as body language, gestures, and clothing, so as to mirror your audience’s preferences and expectations (for a great example of this, check out Burger King’s anti pre-roll ads).
Making This Work For You
Videos by platform:
– Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – All of these platforms enable auto-playing videos, which means that to get the best response, your content has to be visually compelling even without any sound (emotive visuals and/or the use of captions can work well here). As these channels are primarily accessed through mobile devices, your video format can be vertical. Since browsing behaviors will typically be in feed, whatever the content of your video, it has to be visually attention-grabbing within the first few seconds in order to capture the fleeting attention of fast scrollers.
– YouTube – Despite its reputation as the primary video hosting platform, YouTube’s most popular content has historically been music. In terms of branded ads, those that are most successful tend to be videos that disrupt our expectations, change our emotional state, and make us laugh (such as the Geico and Burger King adverts mentioned earlier). – Vimeo – Another popular hosting platform, this channel typically attracts a smaller, more creative community, and can be a good place to share work for which you wish to receive more constructive feedback.
– Your website – The videos you create for your website will naturally be designed to achieve a different outcome than those created for your social channels. Onsite videos should be goal-oriented and work within the context of a page, never sitting in isolation. If you want to increase play rate, you should match the visual branding of your video (the thumbnail and video player) with your brand and website. The video’s prominence on the page will also impact engagement, and as a rule of thumb, the higher up the page it is, the more views it will accrue. Whatever content you create, a beautiful, purposefully designed thumbnail (especially those including human faces) will be more likely to trigger plays.
– Video hosting for business – If you’re designing videos specifically for use on your website, there are several platforms you can use that have been developed specifically for this use-case (such as Wistia, Brightcove, and Vidyard). Offering more detailed analytics, tools and functionality for personalisation than social video platforms, these services can provide a great way to manage your content and gather vital data that can help you optimize your approach.
Top Consumer Psychology Articles
- The One Fitness App That Hooked Me For Good
- Here’s How Fortnite ‘Hooked’ Millions
- How Apps Can Shape Your Future Self
- How Netflix’s Customer Obsession Created a Customer Obsession
- Want to Design User Behavior? Pass the ‘Regret Test’ First
- How to Trigger Product Usage that Sticks
- How to Get People to Help Each Other, Online and Off
- Here’s How Amazon’s Alexa Hooks You
- How to Use Psychology to Make Persuasive Video
- How to Use Personality Science to Drive Online Conversions
- The Unbelievable Future of Habit-Forming Technology
- The Secret Marketing Power of Evolutionary Psychology
- Don’t Ask People What They Want, Watch What They Do
- How Cognitive Biases Can Help (and Hurt) Your Business
- What Most People Don’t Know About Behavioral Design
- How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design
- Your World is Full of Placebo Buttons (and That’s a Good Thing)
- How to Build Technology that Feels Like a Friend
- 3 Pillars of the Most Successful Tech Products
- Here’s How to Ethically Manipulate Other People
- How Two Companies Hooked Customers On Products They Rarely Use
- How to Hook Users in 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Die Dashboards, Die! Why Conversations Will Reinvent Software
- The Secret to Sending Emails and Notifications That Work
- How to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- Hooked for Good: How Habit-Forming Products Improve Lives
- Good Products Start With Good Questions
- Human + A.I. = Your Digital Future
- Why ‘Assistant-As-App’ Might Be the Next Big Tech Trend
- People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently.
- 4 Ways to Win Your Competitor’s Customer Habits (Slides)
- Here’s Why You’ll Hate the Apple Watch (and the Important Business Lesson You Need to Know)
- The Secret Psychology of Snapchat
- The Psychology of Notifications: How to Send Triggers that Work
- How Technology Tricks You Into Tipping More
- The Limits of Loyalty: When Habits Change, You’re Toast
- 4 Ways to Use Psychology to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- The Real Reason “Stupid” Startups Raise So Much Money
- The Psychology Behind Why We Can’t Stop Messaging
- The Psychology of a Billion-Dollar Enterprise App: Why is Slack so Habit-Forming?
- Framing Reward is as Important as Reward Itself
- A Free Course on User Behavior
- It’s Not All Fun And Games: The Pros and Cons of Gamification at Work
- Getting Traction: How to Hook New Users
- Designing for Behavior Change Book Review
- The Sneaky Trick Behind the Explosive Growth of the Kardashian Game
- How Successful Companies Design for Users’ Multi-Device Lives
- The Link Between Habits and User Satisfaction
- What Triggers The Best Word of Mouth Marketing?
- What Tech Companies Can Learn from Rehab
- The Secrets of Addictive Online Auctions
- Teach or Hook? What’s the Real Goal of Online Education?
- Using Mind Control to Raise Startup Cash
- How To Build Habits In A Multi-Device World
- How To Cope with Your Insane Jealousy Of The WhatsApp Deal
- Why Do Fads Fade? The Inevitable Death Of Flappy Bird
- You’d Be Surprised By What Really Motivates Users
- Nostalgia: A Product Designer’s Secret Weapon
- How You Can Help Users Change Habits
- Is “Lean Startup” Right for Your Idea?
- Hunting for Habits: Keying in on smart design to make a product irresistible
- Are Companies Too Obsessed With Growth? How to Measure Habits
- Refresh: The App a Secret Agent Would Love
- Angel or Devil: Who’s Really Investing In Your Start-Up?
- In 10 Years, We Won’t Use Personal Technology
- 4 Simple Things I Did to Control My Bad Tech Habits
- “Yes, And”: The Two Words that Created a #1 App
- From Laid to Paid: How Tinder Set Fire to Online Dating
- What if In-App Purchases Came to Real Life?
- Hooking Users One Snapchat at a Time
- How To Save Your Startup From The “Spotlight Effect”
- Bible App: Getting 100 Million Downloads is More Psychology Than Miracles
- How to Boost Desire Using the Psychology of Scarcity
- Marketplaces & The Curse of the Network Effect
- Today’s Behaviors, Tomorrow’s Startups
- Venture Capital and The Superstitious Investor
- The Future is Driven by Interface Changes
- Why Business is Addicted to Habits
- Viral Loops Or Viral ‘Oops’?
- Making a Marketplace
- What Killed Turntable.fm?
- What You Don’t Know About Human Intuition Can Hurt You
- Designing to Reward our Tribal Sides
- New Video – “Hooked: Building Habit-Forming Products”
- How Technology is Like Bug Sex
- Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do
- The Network Effect Isn’t Good Enough
- Mass Persuasion, One User At A Time
- How Investment Drives Engagement (Slides)
- Getting Your Product Into the Habit Zone
- Where Have The Users Gone?
- Infinite Scroll: The Web’s Slot Machine
- Designing User Habits Video
- Psychology of Sports: How Sports Infect Your Brain
- This is Your Brain On Boarding: How to Turn Visitors Into Users
- User Investment: Make Your Users Do the Work
- Behavior by Design Video
- When Designing for Good Is Bad
- Stop Building Apps, Start Building User Behaviors
- The Morality of Manipulation
- The Next Secrets of the Internet
- User Growth and Engagement: A Hacker Metric
- Spotting the Next Facebook: Why Emotions are Big Business
- The Billion Dollar Mind Trick: An Intro to Triggers
- Why Everyone Hates I.T. People
- Hooking Users In 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Abolish The Reference Check
- Variable Rewards: Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy
- How to Design Behavior (The Behavior Change Matrix)
- How To Design For “Normals”
- Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire
- User Habits: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts
- What Is, and Is Not, Your Product’s Job
- Pinterest’s Obvious Secret
- Personalized eCommerce Is Already Here, You Just Don’t Recognize It
- Where is the Web Going?
- The Developer Divide: When Great Companies Can’t Hire
- Being a Quitter Makes You a Good Entrepreneur
- Behavior by Design
- Why You Should Run Your Business Barefoot
- Are you a Startup Star, Wacko, or Wannabe?