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As consumers watch more and more videos created by brands, marketers are thinking more critically about their video strategies. And key questions arise about when and how often to use "branded video content" and "video ads." To uncover an answer, we partnered with IPG Media Lab to survey consumers. The findings indicate that consumers don't see much of a difference at all, suggesting that marketers may be getting caught up in their own terminology. Regardless of how you think about it, it is important to have a holistic video strategy in place. Here, we provide a framework to help get you started.

Sight, sound, and motion have always been powerful ways to tell a brand's story (hence, the 30-second spot). On the web, brands can do so much more with video— and they are. In recent years, there's been an increase in "branded video content" online, and it's attracting massive audiences. In fact, some of the most popular videos now on YouTube come from brands. Today, the question that marketers often ask of online videos isn't, "Should I create them?" but rather, "Should I focus on creating 'branded video content' or 'video ads?'"

"As more brands try to answer this question, they wonder how they can create branded video content at scale and make it work in tandem with ads. They usually don't know where to start," says Kim Larson, head of Google's BrandLab. Indeed, 81% of marketers recently surveyed by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) indicate "the need for content and new customer experiences" as a top challenge on their agenda.

We decided to poll consumers. Partnering with IPG Media Lab, we surveyed 7,213 consumers on how they perceived videos, both "branded video content" (made for web) and "video ads" (made for TV but promoted online). Participants viewed 69 videos selected by 15 IPG clients across multiple categories and were asked to rate how closely each video mimicked traditional advertisements.

The lines are blurred: Video ads are branded video content (and vice versa)

What we heard from consumers brought the entire premise of the research into question. The reality is that people don't even distinguish between video ads and branded video content— it's a false dichotomy. When asked to rank videos on a scale of "more like advertising" (0) to "less like advertising" (100), both branded video content and video ads were much closer to the "more-like-advertising" end of the spectrum (25.4 average for branded video content and 13.2 for video ads). Consumers see both as being marketing material, but unsurprisingly, they see branded video content as being slightly less so than video ads.

Clearly, consumers are savvy. They understand that brands create both video ads and branded video content as part of their marketing strategies, and they choose to watch both.

The key to compelling videos: Make them feel more authentic 

Advertising is becoming, well, less like advertising—in the traditional sense, at least. Brands have evolved beyond just talking at people and touting their benefits. In an age of authenticity, brands strive to tell stories and build genuine relationships with their consumers. It's an approach that's working. Research reveals that the videos consumers perceive as being "less like advertising"— regardless of whether they are video ads or branded video content— are seen as more informative, authentic, and original.

Blue Moon Brewing Company has seen success using this approach. "We wanted to engage our audience and connect with them in a way that we couldn't with traditional advertising," says Brian Pokorny, senior manager of media and digital. To achieve this, the brand created a branded video series with Complex Media called "The Craftsmen." The series features musicians, artists, and designers who discuss their creative processes and what "craftsmanship" means to them— values that matter to both the Blue Moon brand and its drinkers. "Our target consumers found the videos to be more informative and educational— and therefore more useful, relevant, and trustworthy— than traditional advertising," says Pokorny. "We definitely saw success with this type of storytelling as it improved customer trust."

Using online video content to tell brands' stories is a strategy that's resonating with audiences across YouTube. They choose to watch brands' video marketing messages if they tell compelling stories. In fact, audiences are spending more time than ever watching them. In 2014, the average length of a video on our YouTube Ads Leaderboard, a list of the top-ranked videos from brands, averaged three minutes in length. That's 47% longer than the videos on the Leaderboard in 2013, as we saw in a recent analysis. This shows that if you make a great video, audiences will stick around.

Build a holistic video strategy: Don't get hung up on the terminology 

The bottom line is that brands need video content strategies, but not ones that are segmented into video ads and branded video content. Brands that get the most out of online videos are thinking beyond single spots, embracing holistic strategies that are rooted in consumer behavior. As Kara Manatt, vice president of consumer research at IPG Media Lab, points out, "Brands with the strongest content strategies don't simply repurpose content that has worked for another medium. Instead, they learn from unique consumer behaviors and mind-sets at each medium and touchpoint, turning those insights into content that works for each platform. In the process, they take small risks, test and learn, then adjust before they scale."

We've developed a framework built around three content types: Help, Hub, and Hero.

Youtube Insights Stats Data Trends Vol8
  • Help content shows audiences how to engage with their product, brand, or category. Product demos, tutorials, and how-to videos are great examples of the Help content that every brand needs.
  • Hub content speaks to consumers' passions to broaden a brand's appeal. The content can draw from a variety of other marketing programs such as sponsorships and partnerships with YouTube stars—€”as long as they bring interests such as music, science, cooking, and beauty.
  • Hero content builds around the major events in a brand's marketing calendar, such as big product launches and tentpole moments.

The brands that use Help content successfully serve consumers searching for products and categories in useful and meaningful ways. Meanwhile, they're also pushing out episodic or otherwise recurring Hub content related to their target consumers' passions. Finally, with Hero content, brands execute those "go-big" moments throughout the year to raise awareness for new consumers.

To see how other brands are creating video content that resonates with consumers, watch the 2014 YouTube Ads Rewind. These videos are engaging, moving, authentic, and original. It doesn't really matter whether they're video ads or branded video content. Rather than debate terminology, we marketers should focus on what matters: building relationships with our audiences. And the immersive experience of watching videos on YouTube is an incredibly powerful way to do that.