Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes
by Strickland Gillilan (1904)
It can be said, with relative certainty I suspect, that this is the first time an article around six-second creativity for online video has leaned on twentieth-century poetry to supply an intro. Strickland Gillilan’s poem above is generally agreed to be the shortest in the English language, weighing in at a mere nine letters and a single piece of punctuation, and yet I would argue demonstrates many of the principles we should all be considering when trying to be creative with shorter formats.
Recent times have seen enormous growth in the use of shorter video ads. This has been widely, but wrongly in my opinion, attributed to the collapse in attention spans brought about by mobile devices. We are being reduced apparently, by the streams, stories, and subscriptions these little black mirrors can so swiftly flash past our eyes.
My personal theory is a simpler one. Growth in choice and the manner in which a user can curate their own experience has fuelled frustration with clumsy commercials. Why should they be allowed to hijack our attention and hold it to ransom for half a minute? These initial attempts to lazily transplant old formats into new technology and environments have rightly struggled when the potential of these platforms offers so much more.
My attention span isn’t so diminished, I frequently disappear down video rabbit holes on YouTube and Netflix regularly has to reach from my untouched laptop and prompt to see if I’m still conscious after hours of attentive but inert viewing – I just now see choosing where to skip and where to watch as a basic right.
At the beginning of this year YouTube stopped serving adverts that you had to watch for 30 seconds before seeing the video you wanted, because it wasn’t a good viewing experience. Simply put, if I’m not interested in something, then being forced to get through thirty seconds of it feels interminable. On the other hand if I am paying attention, then thirty seconds is too fleeting.
This change breeds possibility, with shorter-form opening up opportunities to build familiarity and attract attention in intriguing new ways. So how can a poem from 1904 help us make better work in 2018?
Six-seconds is enough time to do one thing well. Any short creative that tries to tick more than one box is likely doomed to doing multiple things poorly. Gillilan’s poem delivers a lone joke with elegance.
You don’t need the hashtag, twitter handle, logo AND a web address on screen. All that these things are doing, is alerting the audience to the fact that this is an ad – and generally we don’t like those. Ask me to do something specific, or show me something interesting.
Our experiments have shown that even a little structure goes a long way. A YouTube test for fictional pizza brand ‘Dr Fork’ demonstrated that a six-second ad which interspersed visuals with black screen supers and VO performed almost twice as well for recall as one which served all the elements simultaneously.
The line break in the poem cues us into to an element of the comic timing, the apostrophe changes the tone from the stiff formality of the title to the colloquial style of a punchline.
Give the audience credit
The first advice given to budding screenwriters on developing suspense in their work is to “come in late, and leave early” with their scenes. Too much lengthy exposition is boring and users will move their attention elsewhere, trust them to get your joke.
If your brand is recognisable, the audience will recognise it. This effect could clearly be seen in a six-second bumper ad for 2016’s ‘Jason Bourne’ film – once it plunged straight into the action to show a shirtless and bare-knuckled Matt Damon concussing a man in the desert, it was unlikely to be promoting ‘We Bought a Zoo’.
If you are struggling to do everything in six-seconds, then think in flocks or sequences. YouTube tests are currently running to measure the relative effectiveness of multiple six-second ads against a single twenty second piece for example. Storytelling is about controlling the flow of information, and having your message play out in sequenced installments will create higher recognition than a single forced sitting.
The principles that are true for the poem are true for our ads; be clear and structured, respect the audience and their time. True creativity relishes constraints though, which is why we can be amused by the world’s shortest poem sneaking in a very long title to set up the punchline. Take these tips as guidelines only and if you get a chance to add a playful twist to the whole thing – take it!
Paddy Collins is industry manager at YouTube UK