Thursday, February 23, 2012

HBS research on viral ads - must-read for Marketers

It’s the holy grail of digital marketing: the viral ad, a pitch that large numbers of viewers decide to share with family and friends.

Several techniques derived from new technology can help advertisers attain this. In our research,">two colleagues and I use infrared eye-tracking scanners to determine exactly what people are looking at when they watch video ads. We also use a system that analyzes facial expressions to reveal what viewers are feeling. These technologies make it possible to isolate elements that cause people to stop watching and to find ones that keep them engaged. In addition, they make it possible to determine what kinds of ads are most likely to be shared and what types of people are most likely to share them. Here are five big problems online advertisers face, along with solutions that have emerged from our research.

Problem 1: Prominent Branding Puts Off Viewers

When people watch ads, they focus on a few things, such as the actors’ mouths and eyes. They also focus on logos. This isn’t the boon it might seem: The more prominent or intrusive the logo, the more likely viewers are to stop watching—even if they know and like the brand. Why? People seem to have an unconscious aversion to being persuaded, so when they see a logo, they resist.

The solution: Utilize “brand pulsing.” Smart advertisers unobtrusively weave the brand image throughout the ad. Experiments have shown that this can increase viewership by as much as 20%. One of the best examples of the technique is Coca-Cola’s animated “Happiness Factory” ad. (Like all the other videos referenced in this article, it’s available on YouTube.) It depicts a fantasy version of what happens inside a Coke machine when someone inserts money. A Coke bottle is shown repeatedly, but each appearance is quick; you can almost imagine that the story would work without the bottle. In fact, a good question to ask when conceiving an ad is: If I removed the brand image, would the content still be intrinsically interesting? If the answer is yes, viewers are more likely to keep watching.

Problem 2: People Get Bored Right Away

After recording viewers’ expressions with video cameras, we use automated technology that measures the distances between various parts of the face to identify smiles, frowns, and other expressions that correlate closely with emotions. (Previous research relied on human coders; automating the process improves accuracy and allows for a much larger sampling.) After analyzing thousands of reactions to many ads, second by second, and tracking exactly when people stop watching, we found that keeping viewers involved depends in large part on two emotions: joy and surprise. To maximize viewership, it’s important to generate at least one of these responses early on. Traditionally, though, advertisers have constructed narratives that escalate toward a dramatic climax or a surprise ending. Such commercials may have worked on TV decades ago, but today’s online viewers need to be hooked in the opening seconds.

The solution: Create joy or surprise right away. Two videos stand out for eliciting these emotions at the start. In one, the familiar Apple spokesman is joined by Mr. Bean, who dances crazily for the remainder of the spot. (The video, it turns out, is not an official Apple ad but a well-crafted parody of Apple’s “Get a Mac” series.) Bud Light’s “Swear Jar” ad opens with a surprise: When an office sets up a jar that workers must pay into as a penalty for profanity, one employee immediately curses because he knows the money will be used to buy Bud Light. Both videos hook people instantly.

Problem 3: People Watch for a While but Then Stop

Although the Mr. Bean video initially succeeds in attracting viewers, it doesn’t keep them watching. That’s because the joy the video creates is delivered at a fairly constant level. We’ve found that ads that produce stable emotional states generally aren’t effective at engaging viewers for very long.

Videos that deliver constant levels of joy or surprise don’t engage viewers for very long. Advertisers need to build an emotional roller coaster.

The solution: Build an emotional roller coaster. Viewers are most likely to continue watching a video ad if they experience emotional ups and downs. This fits with psychological-research findings about human adaptability. When we come into a warm home on a cold winter day, or when we receive a pay raise, we experience pleasure, but the feeling is transitory; the novelty soon wears off. So advertisers need to briefly terminate viewers’ feelings of joy or surprise and then quickly restore them, creating an emotional roller coaster—much the way a movie generates suspense by alternating tension and relief.

Great to finally see some research on what drives "engagement" and willingness to share in video ads. Key conclusions: make'em interesting, no blatant branding and try to trigger emotional responses to the ads - as easy as 1-2-3!

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