SXSW: Telling a six-second story

by Annie Holman ( 243 views 

Editor’s Note: Annie Holman, Associate Media Director for Little Rock-based CJRW, is spearheading a roundup of daily workshops being attended this week by her team at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.

As a general rule, if Elon Musk is in the room, you’re in the right place. But we already knew that.

It’s our second day in Austin, and some of the biggest names on (and off) the planet are on hand to share their views on the present and visions for the future. But, as it turns out, the best thing about surprise celebrities is how they draw the crowds away from some really amazing sessions. So, satisfied with passing Elon on the sidewalk and staring for a few seconds, we decided to livestream the main event and take advantage of the short lines for everything else. As expected, the second day of SXSW was thought-provoking, inspiring, and a little scary.

People have short attention spans. Blame the internet. To them, 30 seconds is too long. They want quick punchlines. Then more Handmaid’s Tale. Something punchy and easy to remember. You’ve got six seconds to get them. Go! In case you were bored with the challenge of distilling your brand in 30 seconds, welcome to the world of short-form video, or as we in the social media trade like to call it, video. Finding placement in the brief pauses in sporting events, the six-second video has officially made its way into traditional media and “gone mainstream.” Now what?

In a filled-to-capacity Austin ballroom, a panel of experts weighed in on what is working so far in the storytelling sprint. (Spoiler alert: it’s more like a relay.) Composing the panel was Tanya Dua of Business Insider, Marwan Soghaier from Steelhouse, Janice Suter from GSD&M, and Green Chef social guru Geoff White. Moderating the session, Dua drove the panel to get into the details of what is giving the six-second video a sudden burst of popularity and new purpose in the grand scheme of brand marketing. There’s real long-term gain in the new wave of short-form videos if brands get their timing right.

The first step to making persuasive six-second videos is understanding what makes really short videos different from, say, your standard 30-second television spot. The most profound difference is also the most obvious. Short videos are cheaper, both to produce and to place. The effect is that a new niche on television (and an existing niche on social media) — the six-second ad spot — is more accessible to brands with smaller budgets. Put another way, if you’re clever with it, here’s a chance to get your foot in the door of a venue once occupied exclusively by major brands with cringeworthy budgets.

There is also a fundamental difference in what you can communicate in six seconds. This is the line being pushed right now by content creators. Think about it. Can you make someone laugh in a six-second video? Yes, or the internet wouldn’t exist as we know it. But, could you make someone cry? Maybe, if you are a certain kind of cause with a certain kind of content. For most brands, any emotional response whatsoever to a six-second video is a notable achievement. The key takeaway is to know your limits and create content accordingly. Don’t try to do too much. Resist the temptation to explain everything and learn to break your message down.

The strength of the six-second video (or 3–5 second video or animated .gif) is also its weakness. Short-form video for most brands is not a substitute for longer videos.

Panelist Geoff White offered the best insight of the discussion with this point. Short-form videos should be “used as an additive.” Can you tell a story in six seconds? Yes, but not the whole story at once, and you shouldn’t try. A better strategy is to tell a story sequentially and in tandem with other storytelling formats, all working together to tell your overall brand story. So, rather than diluting content, short videos are another tool for enriching your content as a whole.

As a company grows, it’s easy to lose the personality and humanity that your customers first connected with. So how do you keep that sense of soul alive in a tech world where brands’ relationships with customers are in constant flux? Droga5 and MailChimp are successful, cutting-edge companies who have built business by helping clients tell their stories. Jonny Bauer from Droga5 and Tom Klein from MailChimp discussed how they keep things authentic and original for their clients through a case study featuring a hugely unique and successful campaign for MailChimp created in collaboration with Droga5.

These two industry thought leaders came together to create this offbeat campaign for MailChimp.

The campaign was dreamed up as a take on the now infamous “Mailcrimp” Serial podcast ad. The team landed on six different iterations of the MailChimp name and created a highly visual, sticky narrative around each one. The stories were distributed along many different avenues based on the content and industry of the made up industries. For example, NailChamp mobilized some of the top influencers in nail art to participate in a fictional nail art competition that fans could vote on — all run on social media and a fake website. This cheeky campaign collectively gained millions of impressions.

Klein and Bauer discussed the agency-brand relationship while working on this project, as well as the importance of collaboration in creating memorable and meaningful experiences. From the brand side, Klein expressed the importance of creating something that was true to the inherent culture and personality of MailChimp. As an agency, Bauer stressed the importance of listening and staying true to the goals of your client. Thinking outside the norm and having the freedom to experiment are also key in balancing the partnership and fostering an overall relationship based on collaboration. The result, he says will always result in something more successful.

As promised, the second day at SXSW was visionary. The challenge is on for content creators and brands to redefine and remake the online experience, discovering new niches along the way and finding new ways to play a role there. We’re also reminded that “interactive” is more than a digital concept. It’s a deeply human one. Content creation, client relationships, and tech adoption are second nature when your first priority is human nature. People want to be more connected in more meaningful and natural ways. They’re going to have it either way. The question is which brands can advance quickly and in profound ways to take the lead in a different kind of race. Let’s call it human.

CJRW Digital Content Writer Josh Walker contributed to this report.