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Why Vary Your Social Content? Ask a Professor. Or Two.

By Phil McCarthy

You want to persuade someone? Strike a balance between repetition and variety. Persuasion has always been about eliciting a change in behavior or belief; it’s not about saying the same thing the same way over and over again. That’s as true in a courtroom as it is in an ad campaign. Bang on and on about the same thing repeatedly, and you’ll lose your audience’s attention.

Given the many formats people use to consume media, marketers are acutely aware of the balance between repetition and diversity in online advertising, be it banner ads and Facebook or whatever disruptive adtech is on the horizon. So, when marketers are given specs for video ads — horizontal for YouTube; vertical for Instagram Stories — they’re followed. They make intuitive sense: Instagram is largely a scrolling mobile experience, which means it has a portrait orientation, while most users watch YouTube videos in landscape, no matter the device.

But what about the content itself? Marketers will vary their ad formats to meet a platform’s specs, but they may not switch up the content.

Is that wrong? What’s the risk? Are the consequences of keeping the same content across all platforms really so dire?

Look to Darwin (yes, that Darwin)

Psychology and communications theory offer answers, as does human evolution.

“In psychology, we talk about habituation. It’s the concept that we gradually become accustomed to our environment and our surroundings, and the more we become habituated, the less we take notice of the things around us,” explains Dr. Hal Hershfield, psychologist and marketing professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

“This is an evolutionary thing. If we scan the landscape repeatedly and don’t see any danger, we should focus our energy elsewhere,” he continues. “It’s not like the things we pay attention to in media present danger, but we still have the same hedonic adaptation where we slowly become accustomed to things, and they fail to register with us emotionally.”

That’s a universal truth across media, but it’s the beating heart of social media. Emotional investment is the key to a high engagement rate, and a high engagement rate is a better barometer of brand health on social than likes or views. 

But producing engaging content isn’t the end all, be all. What works on YouTube doesn’t necessarily translate to Instagram Stories. Yes, they’re both video-driven, but otherwise their effects are fundamentally different.

“Throwing [content] onto a platform without paying attention to how it’s going to work best is going to affect its engagement,” says Justin Rivera, associate director at Horizon Media. “Depending on how the content’s cut, it can come out looking weird, but the biggest impact is going to be on views. People will keep scrolling or ex out of [the ad] without absorbing what’s being told.”

Is that all it takes to ensure your content remains engaging across platforms? Just make sure your content is edited down (or up) and vertically (or horizontally) formatted?

Nope.

Let the medium guide you

Creating engaging content across platforms goes beyond the technical particulars. Dr. Erica Ciszek, who teaches at the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Texas in Austin, reminds us of philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous observation: “The medium is the message.” 

In other words, advertisers should optimize for what people expect of a platform. “Understanding the ways the platforms themselves shape the reception of the content is highly advisable,” says Ciszek. 

“It’s attention span and expectation,” says Rivera. “You have to think about how people are not only using the platform — what they’re looking for — but where they’re viewing that platform. So, YouTube: horizontal video makes sense, long form makes sense — people usually go there with intention or time to kill. But if you think about Facebook or Instagram, video should be vertical because that’s how people are consuming it. And people aren’t going to turn their phone to the side.”

Animoto, the video production platform, ran its own test, and the company’s findings supported Rivera’s observations. The results showed video across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube were all used in very different ways. Instagram users, for example, are especially interested in content that inspires, while YouTube viewers are highly receptive to educational content.

A more extensive breakdown can be found here (along with a handy reference sheet), but the takeaway is that advertisers, for the sake of maximum impact, must take into account what audiences expect from each platform and how they use them. Just like McLuhan said.

Source: Animoto

Yet amid this need for more varied content, clients face a new reality, as Hogarth Australia CEO Justin Ricketts writes in B&T: “[They’re] under continued pressure to produce more content, face increasing challenges in terms of digital requirements, and constantly see ongoing reductions in their budgets.”

Given such challenges, why shouldn’t a client do just the bare minimum in optimization — in visual format or run time perhaps — and call it day? Could the results really be that bad?

“It’s going to affect performance,” says Rivera, “and that ultimately can make a digital buy look as though it’s not giving as big of a return as something traditional like TV, and that’s wrong. You wouldn’t put a still image in a thirty-second TV spot and just keep it there.”

“If you’re going to make an investment in digital and think about how creative is put together, the consideration has to be about what’s going to work best on the platforms the audience you want to target is using,” he continues. “Social content is a marketing channel in itself, complimenting traditional creative. So, in terms of the impact that not optimizing content for social could have on a brand, they won’t get the right measurement back, won’t get the right idea of what’s penetrating the audience.”

Or as Ciszek says: “The platforms are sustained by advertisers, but the reasons why people come to platforms are very different from why advertisers are there. There’s a discrepancy between the two.”

The net result isn’t just failing to maximize what a given social platform can do, either. Remember habituation? “You could argue that what [non-optimized content] is doing is operating on some unconscious level,” says Hershfield. “It’s Unconscious Thought Theory: We have these unconscious thoughts that operate and then eventually we make a decision, and we may not be aware of it. But another way to look at it is, as the more someone habituates those ads, the less likely they are to be engaged in them.”

Fewer Benjamins, less variety

And yet, returning to Ricketts, the reality is that clients don’t have the budget for slews of custom edits, but they still need to get in front of potential customers. That might explain why we’re seeing fewer discrete variations.

“That’s where things are going,” says Rivera. “The more sophisticated tracking is on social. Brands want to be present throughout the consumer’s social lifespan. They see these spaces as multiple places to engage you and push you further down the funnel to conversion. There are caps on how many times an ad will be served, but until then, brands want to stay top of mind and drive consumers toward a purchase. It’s like, ‘Remember me? Remember me? Remember me?’”

"I want to see the multiple facets of a brand, not just the end product."

That kind of repetition may indeed keep brands top of mind, but it also sounds like a fast track to consumer habituation.

“It demonstrates a lack of authenticity from brands when you get that kind of content served back at you. It shows a lack of creativity and innovation,” says Ciszek.

“Rather than trying to sell me a pair of shoes, I want you to engage with me at a deeper, emotive level. In terms of ‘Yeah, I might have to search for those shoes,’ but at the end of the day, if you’re going to serve content, I want it to represent a much more holistic representation of the brand values and personality. I want to see the multiple facets of a brand, not just the end product,” she continues.

Does that mean advertisers are now stuck with a mediocre choice between thin-but-optimized or high-volume-but-repetitive content?

Influencers as a form of creative

“Aside from hammering home a message, you need to compliment it with genuine storytelling,” says Rivera. “That’s where I see influencers coming in. So, yeah, you’re getting ads for a shoe, but as you scroll, you also see someone you look to for fitness incorporating that shoe into workouts. That helps vary the creative, delivering the ad multiple times in different ways.”

This isn’t to say that influencers solve the challenges posed by shrinking production budgets and optimizing across multiple platforms. But it does at least drive home that whatever the balance of digital advertising comes out to for a particular brand, it’s vitally important that there be variations in content across platforms.

“When things change — when they’re a little bit different from the way that they were — then we pay attention more,” says Hershfield. “And the more we pay attention, the more emotionally involved we are. And the more emotionally involved we are, the more we’re likely to engage.”

“Any time that you vary content over different mediums — any time that you vary the experience — is a form of combating habituation,” he says.