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The vertical video debate to be settled in 2016?

vertical video or horizontal video?How do you hold your smartphone most of the time? Is it horizontal, like a widescreen television, or vertical like a letter in the post? And does it change when it comes to watching video?

All these are great questions for video creators and marketers to ask when planning their next video shoot. Historically, virtually everyone says to record video horizontally to capture a true HD experience. But if you’re creating video ads, would it make more sense to create vertical video to match the behaviour of the viewer?

Vertical video is a hot topic as we head into 2016, so I’ve pulled together some data for and against vertical video so you can make up your own mind.

The case for it

Mobile usability is a very intense analytical field. Organisations are performing detailed behavioural analyses to see how people hold their phones, where their thumbs touch the screen, and how to effectively build mobile content to match.

The most commonly cited study is from uxmatters.com. It reveals how people hold their smartphones. It turns out there are many different ways, and we all change depending on what we’re doing. But almost all of the ways discussed in the study have the phone itself in a vertical position. In fact 49% of people hold their phone vertically in one hand. Even for the 15% of cases when people use two hands, only 10% of the time was the phone horizontal. The remaining 36% “cradled” their phones vertically.

These results show people nearly always have the phone in vertical mode. Of course, there are exceptions for specific apps requiring horizontal mode – like games. Even video content can usually be seen in either vertical or horizontal mode (unless an app forces it one way or the other).

So this all leads to the question though, about how people watch video on their phone. I don’t know about you, but given the choice I will always flip my phone horizontal to watch video. That being said, if I come across a video ad while doing an activity (versus intentionally watching video) I find it annoying to have to switch my orientation. And that’s where the question comes in: what impact does forcing viewers to change how they are holding the phone have on the effectiveness of the ad?

In an article on Mashable, Brandon Houston from Switch Video says, “The big players like Audi, AT&T and NBC are testing out the waters of vertical video and have noticed an 80% increase in ad completion. Brands like Burger King and Macy’s have been running vertical Snapchat ads that have been performing quite well, and it makes sense given that vertical is the default way most of us handle our phones.”

He goes on to predict that 2016 will be the year vertical video catches on. The data to support it will be just too strong to ignore. But he also says “This trend is going to transcend past advertising and into longer-form video production as well.” That’s a huge statement considering the current environment of video production, which leads to why vertical video may not be the next big thing.

The case against it

Another mobile marketing expert, Rob Davis of Ogilvy, declares that 2016 will NOT be the year of vertical video. He agrees that the Snapchat study Houston mentioned is proof that the vertical environment dominates the mobile experience. But even though “videos should match the rest of the environment,” he says it just won’t happen so soon.

Why? He bluntly says, “Habit and snobbery.”

The creative community resists change. Even though they should be moving to vertical, they’ll keep doing their old techniques as long as possible. It’s a cynical view for sure. But is there any truth to it?

If you search around to find the best way to shoot video, you’ll get this simple advice 99% of the time: shoot horizontally in the best quality you can. I’ve shared that same advice on this blog before. It’s considered “best practice”, but that is subject to change over time especially in such an evolving field. But I wanted to see if I could find any examples of the prejudice Davis implies exists.

Most of what I found was matter of fact reporting on current expectations for video creation and viewing. But I did find some anti-vertical sentiment as well in a variety of places. Though not a true reputable source in most cases, I thought this quote from an answer in Quora made Davis’ point rather clearly. The question was “What’s the most comfortable way to hold a smartphone when watching a video (horizontally or vertically)?” Here is the answer:

“If it’s a video shot in HD, viewing horizontally will allow you to experience the 16:9 frame ratio. Viewing vertically will make the frame smaller. Comfort-wise, I don’t think there’s much difference.

If the video was shot vertically, find the person who filmed it and take their phone or camera away from them.”

Hmm. Point made?

It seems to me that the debate may be missing one element: context. It’s true most use of smartphones is vertical, and it’s annoying to have to switch orientation during a single task. If I’m using an app in vertical mode, deliver me vertical video. If I’m in horizontal mode, let me see it that way. The information is there for content creators to know which video to serve to create the best experience. Creating the content to fit both experiences is something else though, and likely an issue marketers will have to face in 2016.

Oliver Burt

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