Farewell to Frontloading? Reinventing the Narrative Arc in Social Ads


While advertisers have had to adapt video campaigns to fit short-form platforms, it’s proven a challenge for many to effectively deliver messaging in super-short formats. In the piece Jill Gray, EVP creative & client solutions at VidMob, discusses how brands can intelligently use video platforms’ algorithms to enable longer narrative arcs, to help video retain its traditional brand-building strengths.

The surging popularity of emerging video platforms like TikTok – and more recently Instagram Reels – is giving brands the opportunity to bid farewell to the existing three-second frontloading formula of digital video ads. Assuming of course they’re brave enough to take it.

The return of the story arc

Storytelling has always been at the heart of video advertising. The 30-second TV commercial, built for a captive audience, gave advertisers a full 30 seconds to tell their story; resulting in the classic TV ad linear story arc: starting with something to pique viewers’ interest and then building the story sequentially throughout the ad until the solution and brand is revealed in the final five-second climax.  

But the advent of feed-based digital video advertising – especially on mobile – turned this formula on its head. With its infinite scroll, the feed put the control in consumers’ thumbs.  Jumping rapidly from one piece of content to the next, video ads had far less time to grab attention. Non-linear formats that frontloaded the brand, the big idea and the call to action into the first three seconds quickly became the norm.

No matter how imaginative a brand’s creative team gets, telling a story in three seconds is a tall order. The rise of TikTok-style video snippets gives brands the chance to expand that engagement time from three to 15 seconds, and to re-instate a true narrative arc.  

What makes TikTok different

There are two key drivers behind this narrative shift. First is the fact that TikTok is not a social network – it is solely an entertainment network.  Its algorithm is not bound by the limits of your social network, which means TikTok can pull the most relevant content based on your interests from the entire world. This is creating a consumer behaviour that is used to watching videos through to completion, opening the door to brands to take advantage of a more captive audience with up to 15 seconds of storytelling to play with.  Second is the TikTok ad ranking algorithm, which decides which ad to show to which user, based on potential interaction. The TikTok algorithm appears to more strongly reward relevance, which is measured by the time a video is watched, meaning ads that keep users engaged for longer will be seen by larger audiences and will drive greater ROI. The lesson? Brands need to embrace a consumer-first storytelling ethos and build video ad content TikTok users want to watch.

The TikTok 15 second creative opportunity 

There are some exciting creative opportunities for brands that arise from the longer view times that TikTok’s distribution and ranking of ads encourages: 

  1. Evolve from an ad to a native ad

A native brand experience looks very different from your traditional ad; there’s no shoving in as many reasons-to-believe as you can, or insisting on the perfect bite and smile.  But if an Ocean Spray bottle riding along on a skateboard drives meaningful brand impact, then brands will need to get comfortable with a stripped down consumer-led story.   

  1. Turn up the volume on emotion

Longer watch times means more time to trigger emotions – to bring joy, to make an audience laugh, to strike a chord.  You have less copy to rely on but a lot more audio.  Brands will need to put down their pencils and pick up their headphones, and use music to build emotion and drive their storytelling. 

  1. Bring on the challenge

With the rise of challenges seen in native content, we’re already seeing a similar rise in challenge-based advertising, such as the #LittleBitFancy challenge from Hillshire or the #MatteInkChallenge challenge from Maybelline, as well as brands such as P&G collaborating with TikTok influencers.  A successful brand ad challenge will rely on a its ability to create challenges that are consumer-first and above all, entertaining. 

Is TikTok’s longer ad story arc here to stay?

Of course tailoring video ad creative to a particular platform and its audience is a great idea in theory but it’s not always easy to put into practice. The native character of social advertising often becomes diluted as brands simply don’t have the resources to produce different creatives for different platforms, and are understandably attracted to the scale and efficiency of cross-platform delivery. Equally social platforms aren’t always able to stick to their dream of a truly native advertising experience as revenue goals outweigh creative sensibilities.

Whether TikTok can fulfil this dream remains to be seen, but there is certainly hope that it will. In addition to the algorithm that rewards relevance and watch time, there are also external industry developments that support building video creative by platform. The barriers to creative production are being broken down, making it much easier for brands to test different creative concepts and tailor them to individual platforms. Creative is also more measurable and actionable than ever before. There are more and more ways to both measure the impact of creative elements, and provide proof that creative exploration and customisation by platform drives business results – like Facebook’s recent reveal of a 26% lift in purchases for brands that do creative testing. These leaps forward with creative data enable brands to justify building ads by platform and allow them to optimise campaigns in-flight to maximise performance.            

Frontloading all the key elements of digital video advertising into the first three seconds has constrained brand creativity in the pursuit of attention, but emerging video platforms such as TikTok and Instagram Reels provide the chance to tell a new story. For brands that want to lead and innovate, now is the time to get ahead of this new opportunity and bid a fond farewell to frontloading.


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