Video ads have exploded over the last few years. Between YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and emerging sites such as TikTok, it certainly seems like video is the future of marketing. However, not all video content yields the same results. In this competitive environment, it’s more important than ever to engage your audience. One of the best ways to do this is to give your videos a strong narrative structure. Let’s look at what narrative means and why it’s so crucial for hooking your viewers.
How to tell a story
A solid narrative structure essentially means that you’re telling a good story. Keep in mind that online video is related to earlier media such as TV and movies. When viewers sit back to watch a screen, they want to be entertained. This is even true for ads, which is why the best TV commercials are so memorable. It’s easy to ignore or click away from a video ad. What are some of the qualities of a story? In fields such as literature and scriptwriting (either for plays or movies), experts sometimes identify 7 elements of narrative: plot, setting, characters, point of view, theme, symbolism, and conflict. For the purpose of video ads, we can simplify this and focus on a few of the key elements:
- Character/Hero -This can be one person speaking into the camera, two or more people acting out a scene, or animated figures. Even a whiteboard video made solely of text has at least one character, which may be the viewer.
- Setting -This is the space that the characters inhabit and where the action takes place. When making a short video ad, you don’t necessarily have to create a complex or dramatic scene. You can describe the setting and illustrate it with a few props.
- Plot/Conflict -Every novel, TV program, or movie has a plot. This is what happens, which involves some kind of problem or conflict. In the realm of marketing, this can be the challenge faced by your customer. You can infuse this with suspense, humor, outrage, or another emotion depending on the voice you want.
- Resolution -How the story turns out. For your ad, this is the solution you’re offering customers.
Study storytelling in ads
There’s no shortage of examples of great TV commercials and video ads from which to draw inspiration. Think of the ads that draw you in even if you’re not particularly interested in the product. Super Bowl ads, which companies pay many millions to show, often display creative storytelling. Forbes recently came up with a good selection of ads that tell great stories, compiled by a Pixar writer.
One of the selections, Juliette the Doll, is a McDonald’s commercial that perfectly illustrates the above elements of narrative. The main character or hero/heroine is the doll. The plot or conflict is that she needs to find a home. McDonald’s, of course, ends up providing the solution. This ad is worth watching to note how many dramatic elements they squeeze into this 90-second video.
Of course, the average business doesn’t have the budget of McDonald’s. Your video ads may not have quite the same production values as those made by large companies. Fortunately, you can still include the vital elements of storytelling regardless of your budget. For example, you can engage your viewers by simply telling a good story even if you don’t have actual characters on the screen.
Stories vs. Factsheets
Not every ad tells a story. Some simply list facts, features, and benefits. This is a sure way to bore your audience into clicking away from your ad (or turning the sound down if they can’t). Two videos can look superficially similar yet have very different styles and results. Consider 2 ads where one person is speaking into the camera promoting an auto insurance policy.
- Video 1: “Acme Insurance has the lowest rates in the industry. We have a 95.6% satisfaction rate. We’re available in all 50 states, etc.”
- Video 2: “John was driving his kids home from school when he was suddenly sideswiped by a van. Luckily, no one was hurt, but his car needed body repair. When John called Acme Insurance, he didn’t get a recording but was able to talk to Linda, who reassured him that his policy would cover the damage.”
The second approach works better because it introduces actual people in situations that everyone can identify with. The power of storytelling isn’t just conjecture. Neuroscientists have discovered that our brains are wired for stories. No one starts to watch a video thinking “I’d really like to hear a list of features and prices.” People are almost always receptive to a story, though. No matter what you’re promoting in your video ads, consider how you can turn it into a narrative.