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Choosing the right emotional content in your videos

emotional content in your videoVideo marketing strives to create certain emotions in people in order to get them to take a certain action. That may be to buy something, donate, like the video, follow the brand – it could be anything. But what do those emotions mean when it comes to deciding whether or not to act?

Research into decision making

It turns out to be quite an interesting area of academic research. Psychologist are trying to understand why and how people make the decisions they do. My expertise is in physics and technology so I don’t claim to understand it all. But there is one fairly recent research paper from University of Switzerland written about how mood affects decisions. Here’s the abstract of the paper (keep reading even if the abstract loses you – hopefully all that academic jargon will be clear by the end of the blog!):

Many theories on cognition assume that people adapt their decision strategies depending on the situation they face. To test if and how affect guides the selection of decision strategies, we conducted an online study (N = 166), where different mood states were induced through video clips. Results indicate that mood influenced the use of decision strategies. Negative mood, in particular anger, facilitated the use of non-compensatory strategies, whereas positive mood promoted compensatory decision rules. These results are in line with the idea that positive mood broadens the focus of attention and thus increases the use of compensatory decision strategies that take many pieces of information into account, whereas negative mood narrows the focus of attention and thus fosters noncompensatory strategies that rely on a selective use of information. The results further indicate that gaining a deeper theoretical understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that govern decision processes requires taking emotions into account.

If you’re like me you’re wondering what some of those words mean. I read the full paper and here’s my interpretation. The experimenters posed a theory that mood will affect the type of decision making strategy people will use. They designed an experiment to test that theory. It involved research subjects (mostly university students) watching videos to set a mood, then answering questions requiring some decisions to be made while answering. But before we get too far, here are definitions of the words compensatory and non-compensatory which are what confused me initially (not having the proper context for the terms).

In “compensatory” decision making strategies, people will evaluate the whole situation and draw impressions of the options they can choose from. Then they will balance out the good and the bad for each. Or in other words they use a “broad focus” based on impressions rather than details. Though not in the paper, my analogy would be someone deciding whether to stay in or go out for dinner. They’d balance out the aspects of staying in versus the aspects of going out by looking at the situation from an overall perspective. Whichever option had the more positive values to that person in the moment would win.

On the other hand, non-compensatory decision making uses a narrow focus. This means someone would gather all the information on the subject, but not try to do an overall balancing of the whole. Using the dinner example they will focus more on the details – what they have in the fridge at home, how much time they have to cook, how far the restaurant is, the type of restaurant, etc.  The difference here is in the focus on the details.

Since I’m not a psychologist, I’m not sure if these analogies are strictly correct from the theoretical standpoint (the multiple theories of cognitive functions discussed in this one paper were quite detailed and sometimes overlapping). But hopefully they’re are clear enough to get the gist of the differences in the two approaches.

What the researchers found was that people who watched cat videos (they’re everywhere!) and the opening scene to “Ice Age” (the 2002 Hollywood film) reported a positive mood and they used compensatory decision making strategies. People who watched videos designed to create a negative mood (documentaries on dolphin slaughter or execution scene from the “Green Mile” are examples) predominately used non-compensatory decision making.

Why is mood important?

In their summary, the researchers concluded “Our results indicate that mood states exert a causal influence on strategy selection.” So people will use different methods for decision making based on their mood. This means they may likely make different decisions, or at least their behaviour may be different depending on the mood.

One example of this is the response to two commercials created for the Super Bowl XLIX by Budweiser, one of the major beer companies in America. One of the ads was a story of a lost puppy finding his way home, then being saved by his friends who happen to be Clydesdale horses (a symbol of the company). This video quickly had over 100,000 likes and now has over 29 million views. It also ended up on several lists of best Super Bowl commercials for the year.

The other video presented the company as the opposite of the microbrewery, or companies that make “fancy” type beers. The problem is that the number of microbreweries in America has doubled in the last seven years. It’s a popular trend that industry experts say still has a lot of room to grow. By poking fun at the smaller breweries and the people that like them, Budweiser looked like a bully. Consequently people reacted negatively. Currently the video has almost six times as many dislikes as likes. I’ve never actually seen any video where the dislikes outweighed the likes by such a margin.

So, one company made two different videos, each eliciting a completely different emotional reaction. While there are no data available, I would hazard a guess that people who became angry after watching the video didn’t run out and buy Budweiser beer. That doesn’t mean people who were happy watching the other video did either of course. But they did actively decide to like or not like the videos based on their mood.

How this information helps you

Emotional content is important, but understanding the impact of those emotions on your viewers helps you design content to get your desired result.  For example, if you’re trying to raise brand awareness using video with a call to action to “like” or share the video you might want to stick with something positive. If the video makes them happy, then whether to like it or not will appeal to their more holistic style of decision making. For me, it seems to become a “feel good” type of decision (again the researchers never used that term because that is too simplistic a solution for the analysis they did). Does it feel better to like it or not? Other studies have shown too that people tend to share positive videos more than negative ones.

But let’s say you’re trying to raise funds for a charity that helps old, abandoned or injured horses. You could show a happy or funny video of all the horses you’ve helped save and returned to health. People would likely share those videos. But if you were asking them to donate funds, then perhaps happy isn’t what you want. Showing something more emotionally stirring, either making people feel sad or angry may cause them to take the action you want. That’s because the negative emotion will likely cause them to focus in on the subject, ask questions, and gather more information. They may have questions like, “How could that happen?” “Why didn’t someone do something sooner?” or maybe “How can I help?”

And that’s what you’d want them to ask so you get a donation from them. It’s a technique used by many animal and children’s charities. But it could work for other purposes as well.

Knowing how emotion, or mood, affects people’s decision making can help you design content to get your desired result. If the academic paper is any clue though, there still isn’t any exact formula for what you want to achieve. Scientists are still trying to figure out how human cognitive functions and emotions interact. But what this paper provided is a little nugget of information that could help you create your best performing video yet.

Oliver Burt

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