How to Tell an Effective Story with Vertical Video

Jenny Coppola


Vertical video isn’t just a quirk of smartphones anymore — it’s a legitimate format people love to watch. From Snapchat and Instagram Stories to IGTV, vertical video is here to stay.

So what’s so mesmerizing about vertical video? Well, for starters, it’s:

  • Immersive: It fills the entire screen
  • Intimate: It can show people and places close up
  • Immediate: It’s easy to record and post

Marketers can capitalize on this trend, and we have some ideas about how to do it. But first, let’s take a look at how public opinion of vertical video has transformed rapidly over the last few years.

From bad meme to viral trend

In the recent past, vertical videos were mocked by film buffs and tech companies alike. Tall, skinny videos were considered ugly and amateurish. In a traditional embed frame, a vertical video is flanked by huge black bars, the movement becomes small and narrow, and there’s no room to set a scene. This bothered video purists so much that “Vertical Video Syndrome” became a meme in 2012.

But when Snapchat popularized the vertical format among the native smartphone generation, vertical video became less of a taboo. Instant, disappearing clips made video more casual and accessible to non-video pros.

When Instagram released its own version of Snapchat (aka Stories), vertical video went mainstream. Brands started making Instagram Stories ads, and in August of 2017, Instagram reported 250 million daily Stories users compared to Snapchat’s 166 million.

Even DJ Khaled, one of the most prolific Snapchatters of all time, got involved in the IG Stories game, often cross-posting the same videos to both platforms.

In June 2018, Instagram launched IGTV, creating a new space for individuals and brands alike to try their hand at feature-length vertical video. This marks a major shift in the way content creators approach social video — and may even cut into some of YouTube’s 500 million daily views.

As vertical video continues to grow, it makes sense for marketers to get on board with the trend. Making video specifically for mobile devices presents unique opportunities as well as challenges. Here are a few ideas we think will help you make the most of this immersive, intimate, and immediate video format. Let’s go!

“As vertical video continues to grow, it makes sense for marketers to get on board with the trend.”

Idea #1: Tell a story that unfolds

Vertical video might be criticized for its lack of professional polish, but the immediacy of a video that screams “I just took my phone out of my bag and started filming!” is pretty compelling in a world of 24/7 news and live streams.

And what better way to tell a story that keeps your viewers on the edge of their seats than with vertical video? The “unfolding story” idea works well for showcasing planned events, however it can also work well for content that’s even more off-the-cuff. Take #planebae, for example. What’s #planebae, you ask? Well, it’s the story of a woman who documented strangers falling in love on an airplane when she traded seats with them. Her Instagram followers were riveted by the Stories updates she sent from the plane, as the new acquaintances exchanged information and walked off the plane together.

Switch gears and face the hard truth of working in the business world; most events are not popular or newsworthy enough to warrant this type of play-by-play. However, a well-thought-out, linear recap of an event’s key moments can still make for some effective and engaging content. When you’re able to unfold the story piece by piece and create suspense, you’ll make it more fun for viewers to watch, encouraging them to check back in for new content.

“When you’re able to unfold the story piece by piece and create suspense, you’ll make it more fun for viewers to watch, encouraging them to check back in for new content.”

Check out this example from the folks behind the Sasquatch! Music Festival. They recorded short videos of performances and attendees over the course of the three-day event in 2018 and then posted it in their Instagram Story highlights.

Take a look at how the story unfolds.

For those who didn’t attend, the videos offer a glimpse into what a day at the festival looks like, from waking up in a tent, to daytime dance parties, to sunsets and big-name performers who go on after dark. For those who were there, the videos serve as a sort of memory portal, reminding them of good times they had and perhaps making it more likely they’ll go back next year.

So, the next time you host a big event or even a company picnic, ask a smartphone-savvy employee to record the highlights of the day. The resulting reel will capture the action as it happened, and will also serve as an advertisement for future events. Did someone say #FOMO?

Idea #2: Record yourself(ie)

If someone’s holding a camera phone vertically, it won’t be long before the urge to take a selfie becomes overwhelming. Don’t resist! Self-recorded interviews, takeovers, and behind-the-scenes peeks are particularly intimate ways to introduce someone to your company and products. It also gives the person on camera more creative control, resulting in an authentic (if a little shaky) production.

Skincare brand Dr. Roebuck’s features takeovers by employees and influencers, and then saves the Stories in their Highlights. The people onscreen show their skincare routines as well as the rest of their day. The viewer gets to see the products in action and how a skincare routine fits into someone’s life.

Watch the whole story here.

And while your products may not be related to skincare (but hey, they could be!), a first-person perspective is still invaluable for humanizing your brand. Find a compelling story to tell about your business, and then empower your team to use video to share that story.

In a takeover, your “brand voice” should disappear, giving customers and employees the opportunity to speak for themselves. Mixing up your content like this will only make your social media precense more diverse and interesting, so don’t be afraid to let go of the reigns a little.

“In a takeover, your brand voice should disappear, giving customers and employees the opportunity to speak for themselves.”

Commissioning a series of takeovers also allows you to nail down a repeatable format that you can execute on a regular basis. For example, many companies do #TakeoverTuesday, so their audiences know when to expect new content.

And last but not least, videos featuring faces simply perform better. It’s much easier to connect with a face than an object. So go find some good lighting and a flattering angle and selfie away!

Idea #3: Let your viewers tag along

Your phone camera doesn’t always have to act as a mirror — sometimes it can be an extra set of eyes. Take your audience on a journey by truly immersing them in the world as you experience it.

The goal of this type of video is to make it easy for someone to imagine themselves as the one behind the camera. The viewer should feel like they’re participating in the event being filmed, whether that’s preparing a meal, exploring a new city, learning to use a tool, or even meeting new people.

What’s great about this format (and all vertical video, really) is that there’s low overhead cost. If you’re filming a day-in-the-life of someone at your company or even a tour of your city, all you have to do is walk around and film. In fact, you don’t even need to feature other people if you don’t naturally encounter them! The point is to keep it real and authentic.

Fashion label Alice and Olivia used this style of video on their IGTV channel by creating a short tour of their office space. The video is effective because it provides a glimpse into their employees' personal styles, as well as the environment where they design their colorful creations.

Watch the tour for yourself.

Afterall, brand loyalty comes from memorable experiences rather than the products themselves. And what better way to let customers experience your brand than to take them on a virtual tour?

Idea #4: Experiment with Portrait Mode

With its narrow orientation, vertical video is practically made for featuring people. You can create intimate, yet polished profiles of people who work at your business by shooting close-up footage of their faces. Instagram even has a Focus portrait mode feature for video, which detects faces and slightly blurs the background.

“With its narrow orientation, vertical video is practically made for featuring people. ”

Because of the detail captured in portrait mode, emotion is more easily communicated through subtle gestures and facial expressions, giving the viewer the impression that the storyteller is speaking to them directly.

The folks over at Netflix have really leaned into this style of video on Instagram with their recent Queer Eye dating tip series. These short clips are funny and true to the on-screen personas of the “Fab Five." These brief portraits are a testament to the brand created by the show, which centers around self-improvement through vulnerability. Plus, the tips are practical and kind-hearted, so what’s not to love?

Take a look at these tips for yourself.

Portrait videos can engage loyal customers who already know your brand well and quickly break down barriers with those who barely know you. Attaching a face to a brand is also a powerful way to endear people to your cause and create familiarity. Think about what types of information you can share in this format — repurpose popular blog content, make a big company announcement, or even share that you’re looking to fill some open positions!

Don’t fear vertical video

Though nothing can replace the experience of sitting in a movie theatre and watching a movie in full widescreen, vertical video opens up tons of opportunities for marketers. As with any new format, it will stretch your creativity and teach you new production skills, as well as give you more ways to create content that resonates with your audience. Even if you once hated vertical video, you might change your mind once those mobile views start racking up!

Jenny Coppola


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