Robbie Spargo, the Director of digital content agency Little Dot Sport, discusses the fast-moving vertical video space and shares some first-hand tips on how to get the most from your shoots.
Video is video, right?
That’s what I remember thinking when first considering hiring our first vertical video producer. Why would I need to specify that it’s vertical?
Since then, five or so years ago, I have probably spoken about vertical video more than almost any other topic. Vertical video has indeed become a core part of what Little Dot Sport offers in the social content space, building off our early experience on TikTok with the likes of Extreme E and the England football teams.
So what is a vertical video strategy and why is it so important for sports rights-holders today?
The simple answer is that ‘vertical video’ has actually become a byword for a platform and consumer trend that has emerged rapidly and strongly in the last three to five years. That trend is mobile-first, full-screen, portrait viewing of an infinite-scroll feed of short-form, meme-oriented videos. The platforms in question are of course TikTok, with YouTube Shorts now quickly growing to rival it. Instagram has also amalgamated all their video efforts into vertical (Reels).
When developing a successful strategy for these platforms it is important to acknowledge that they all demonstrate small – but important – individualities. Before getting into that, though, it’s worth saying that they also all have one major similarity: a significant skew towards younger audiences. Data from Qustodio places TikTok as the social app with the most time spent among 4-18 year-olds globally. Our own data shows that while 48% of views of regular YouTube videos come from 18-34 year-olds, that figure rises to 70% when just looking at Shorts.
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In terms of differences, it’s clear from our data that TikTok is the platform that asks for the most creativity, personality (in every sense) and original thought. We see a typically strong performing TikTok as one that features an athlete in front of the camera, ideally piggybacking off a current trending sound, in a piece of content that has been made bespoke for the platform and makes use of in-app effects and text options.
On YouTube, almost the opposite is true. We’re seeing a great deal of success from content that doesn’t have subtitles or text, often directly using event footage: videos without text and subtitles perform 8x and 25x better, according to our research. A typically strong Short looks not dissimilar to a viral UGC video from YouTube some 10 years ago.
On Reels, we are finding that the content has to cater to Instagram’s multimedia foundations. Unique angles on traditional events, in keeping with Instagram aesthetic roots, work particularly well. This is a place where the pitch-side camera, the POV GoPro shot, or the drone fly-through really comes into its own.
You might be forgiven for feeling that these nuances create yet more of a burden for the digital content team. How on earth to produce for all of these eventualities, let alone the content required for web and app, 16:9, 4:5 and commercial partners?
Naturally, the more hands the better, but as this is not always possible, we use a few techniques that can optimise workflows to allow for more. When it comes to reformatting 16:9 action footage for vertical, one rule of thumb is not to sweat imperfections too hard. We often have to use dirty feeds for clipping: when tracking a ball in 9:16, this means creating the effect of graphics sliding in and out of centre-frame. It’s not ideal, but doesn’t affect viewership – particularly on YouTube. To avoid this, it can help to lean towards using close-up angles over wide shots.
When it comes to original content, we always recommend having a dedicated vertical producer on location. Better-performing vertical videos often have lower production values and therefore less set-up time required. Having a producer with a phone ready to jump in during a pause in filming makes the best use of our industry’s terrifyingly short appearance windows. For those shoots that are vertical-only, we still recommend trying to stay ‘lo-fi’.
In a fast-evolving space, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the demands of multiple platforms and the success and failure the same vertical video can have on each. By streamlining production of vertical and having a set of simple principles to refer to for each platform, it can all feel a great deal more manageable while also delivering far greater returns.