Longer form content

Abi Harding, Producer, discusses why corporates should embrace the trend

Fifteen years ago it would have been unthinkable for corporate communications to use the documentary form as a medium for engagement.

In 2003 we were only just getting used to the idea of documentary being ‘cinematic’ - with documentary films like Touching the Void and Fahrenheit 9/11 reaching mainstream audiences in cinemas for the first time – let alone sell things. Before that, even the idea of making documentary beautiful or dramatic was considered deeply questionable.

Thankfully, since then, things have moved on and audience appetites and expectations have become substantially more sophisticated. Viewers are increasingly accepting of the lines being blurred, and ‘documentary style’ content being paid for, so long as the trade-off has some integrity.

Add to that the relative cheapness of producing a documentary-style advertising campaign against a full-blown advert and you can quickly see why it has developed a firm foothold in the communications toolbox - and has become a favourite with supermarkets, banks and telcos.

Going with the long-flow

The received wisdom in the age of social media tells us that everything needs to be quicker, shorter, snappier, squarer, that we lose audience attention after 2 minutes and that the first 7 seconds are critical. But this has much more to do with the platforms these messages are being consumed on rather than any real proven erosion of attention spans.

In fact, growing evidence tells us that while shorter content gets more eyeballs, longer form content gets more search engine results and social shares. In terms of real engagement, this is where the wheat gets sorted from the chaff.

This is also being reflected in the market with more and more brands opting for longer form content to tell their stories, and more platforms enabling longer form content (classed as anything upwards of 8 minutes) to be shown.

Even Instagram, the pioneers of the 15 second video, are now pivoting towards long form video. Last summer Instagram released IGTV, a new app for watching up to an hour of YouTube-style video content.

The truth is, both short and long formats have their value, depending on what you want to achieve, with the prevailing wisdom that short form drives clicks and awareness, while longer form drives engagement with your mission or cause.

A case in point

MerchantCantos has proven this very successfully in 2018 with the release of a feature length documentary produced for The Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute, which was founded to support young scientists and brain research. The Institute wanted a film that would showcase the advances and opportunities in brain science as well as highlight the need for broader support to unlock the full potential of the human mind.

Initial discussions focused on creating a corporate promotional film - but it soon became clear that the opportunities to tell a bigger, more dramatic story were far too great to miss. After extensive research, the MerchantCantos team developed a full-length documentary, one that journeyed across the US, UK and China interviewing leading scientists, researchers and their patients in the world’s top medical institutions.

The result was Minds Wide Open, an extremely successful 60-minute feature documentary, that, since its release on Discovery USA and China in August 2018, had been screened to over 14 million viewers.

In the first 4 weeks, the Minds Wide Open team saw:

  • A 600% increase in visitors to the TCCI site
  • Over half a million views of the film trailers through LinkedIn and YouTube
  • 22,000 clicks through to the Minds Wide Open microsite
  • More than 7m impressions of the (digital) ads

The documentary has also won 3 Gold Cannes Corporate Awards (Medical, Education, and Science & Technology film categories) and is shortlisted for several others. It is available on iTunes and Amazon.

Minds Wide Open evolved from a very particular set of circumstances. Not every company can or should be making a feature length documentary to drive engagement, but it’s proof that there’s a strong case for telling bigger stories about brand, mission or purpose.

So should Corporates be getting behind this longer-form video trend?

Absolutely they should. But it doesn’t mean you can stick the company’s CEO in front of a camera for 20 minutes. It means shifting your focus to put your audience, rather than your brand message or product, first.

In the case of Minds Wide Open, this was an inspiring and very human documentary about the wonders of brain science, rather than an informational film about what the Chen Institute is trying to achieve.

This is the main perception shift that needs to happen in corporate film, and one that has been happening in the consumer communications space already for some time.

As one leading creative exec put it: “We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and become what they’re interested in instead"

Know your landscape

A critical part of shifting from short to long-form includes knowing your storytelling landscape. It should be one you inhabit. One in which you know the peaks and troughs, the pitfalls and the hazards. And it should be a landscape in which you have your audience’s permission to occupy. Tick these landscape boxes and you strike communications gold. Gamble with unchartered terrain, work outside your area, and you risk losing trust and alienating your audience, as last year’s Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert disastrously proved.

AMEX identified its storytelling landscape brilliantly with its hour-long documentary Spent: Looking for Change – an investigation into the 17 million ‘unbanked’ Americans who had fallen out of the banking system and forced to rely on check cashers to provide basic financial services. The result was a genuinely compassionate look at a serious financial problem, a problem that AMEX was far enough removed from yet knowledgeable about to be able to draw attention to with rectitude. A perfect match.

Equally, UBS struck content gold with its year-long editorial platform Unlimited – which saw media partnerships with Vice, Monocle and Vanity Fair to produce long-form content and films asking questions around themes such as ‘does wealth make us rich?’ that mapped changing attitudes to wealth. The 20-minute film Nashira, produced in partnership with VICE, won several awards.

By identifying themes that they could talk about, authentically talk about, these companies were able to move beyond product and services and use the power of film to demonstrate purpose and thought leadership instead.

The long and short of it

There will always be a need to communicate end-of-year-results and executive statements, but is your company missing a trick with film and could you be harnessing it more effectively to tell richer, fuller stories about your company and its purpose?

If the content is there, if the creative tools are available, then surely you have a licence (an obligation?) to mine deeper exploring those facets of your business that lie beneath the top layer. Afterall, scratching the surface just makes one itch for more.

The MerchantCantos film team will be happy to explore these layers with you.

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