Only got 6 seconds for your ad? Then take some tips from Alfred Hitchcock

In an era of increasingly deficient attention spans, creatives are finding themselves working with ever tightening time-formats – but this shouldn't be something to be scared of, writes BBH's Arthur Tsang

Can you even be bothered to read this first sentence?

It has become a bit of a cliché to say we’re bombarded with information and messaging constantly these days.

And as such, this plethora of choice and noise has eroded audiences’ attention span to less than eight seconds – which, if true, gives little space for creatives to play in now. 

Nevertheless, given the almost infinite number of ways to amuse themselves online, it’s a fact that today’s audience is much less tolerant of boredom

With this in mind, our work now must work that much harder in a much more confined space of time – hence the rise of the six-second format on YouTube.

What we now need to realise is that the consumer’s experience of a story is no longer confined to an isolated viewing, then you have room to let your story play out across an orchestration of formats which link into each other.

The important word here is ‘orchestration’. Your story needn’t entirely exist in one video version, but rather sits on a higher dimension which the audience can peek into via different formats that give you a different perspective on the whole.

Working together like different instruments in an orchestra, the total experience of the story becomes bigger than the sum of the parts – like these series of tales from Project Candy House:

When we understand this, we can see the role of the ultra-shortform video in the context of a bigger orchestration.

The mistake most marketers make is indulging the urge to say everything in every format. Instead, they should realise they can still ‘say everything’, but across the entire spectrum of formats.

The goal of short is like bait on the water; you lure people into your story universe and make them hungry to seek more. The art of great storytelling is in fact controlling flow of information – plot points reveal more to the audience and lead them deeper into the woods. This is the mindset we need to approach a new form of storytelling in a world of diminishing attention.

So now we know that the six-seconder has its unique role in your total story, how to make the best use of it?  This is where the principles for ‘bait’ are simplicity, impact and curiosity.

Be simple: six seconds isn’t an awfully long time. There’s time just enough to make one point. You need to decide what is it that is most enticing to a fresh pair of eyes to draw them into your world and be incredibly single-minded about that. Avoid thinking short duration means more reach and so you feel you need to cram in as many messages as possible in there. Do just one thing well, as shown in this sweet spot for Airbnb:

But that simple one thing you wish convey in six seconds is wasted if what you’ve chosen is, quite frankly, boring. You have six seconds to leave a lasting impression and that starts the viewer on a journey into a bigger universe. So choose single plot points from the total story that have the most impact – one gag or one twist or one climax. Approach ultra-short video formats as you would great outdoor advertising. What gives this stopping power? Craft these moments with stunning art direction, or look for strange juxtapositions. Remember, visual language speaks at the speed of light.

The human mind has a remarkable ability of filling in the gaps – think the implied violence in a Hitchcock scene.

Lessons from Hitchcock: show, don’t tell

When time is short, we should use this ability wherever possible. Don’t show, imply. Don’t tell, tease. It’s more powerful to let the story play out in the audience’s imagination than to go through all the motions on screen. Play on their natural curiosity to lead them to more of the story on other formats. What this means practically is when we edit in six seconds, it’s not to create action, but intention. Leave tiny cliffhangers and open endings which are rewarded later with little spikes of dopamine the further into the story the viewer goes.

Don’t be afraid of the six-second format. Recognise its place in a bigger new way of storytelling across a system of formats. It is your bait in a sea of ever more attention-deficient viewers. Get them hooked on it.

Arthur Tsang is the chief creative officer of BBH China 


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