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A Research-backed Guide to Social Media Video Advertising



In digital spaces, with more and more brands vying for viewers' time and money every day, how you choose to advertise your product matters more than ever. Building the perfect ad requires finesse and balancing the structure, context, and content of your messaging. Striking this balance can be tricky, and there aren’t many practical resources out there to guide you through the process. This article offers readers key digital marketing best practices, synthesizing recommendations from three essential perspectives: people who host ads (social media platforms), people who make ads (an editorial director), and people who view ads (social media users).


We started with a review of the academic literature, finding an emphasis on broad, social and emotional concepts like connection, community, and ethics. In contrast, social media platforms mostly recommend heuristics to drive engagement. An interview with an editorial director revealed additional themes related to strategy. Finally, a survey of social media users showed support for many of these themes.


Lit Review

The academic perspective underscores the importance of connection, community, and ethics in the realm of social media advertising. Muniz Jr. and O’Guinn (2001), for example, demonstrated that brand communities, bound by mutual respect, promote brand loyalty. Fournier and Lee (2009) then show how partnerships and co-creation can help establish and solidify these connections. This emphasis on genuine connections and mutual respect reflects a growing imperative for companies: develop a relationship with customers to drive growth.


These relationships should be encouraged through ethical advertising practices — ensuring transparency, respecting privacy, engaging in positive practices, and promoting authenticity. This not only strengthens trust but elevates the overall impact of social media campaigns.


Social media platforms, on the other hand, endorse a more direct and practical approach. After gathering and analyzing marketing materials put out by five major social media platforms, we identified six themes:

  1. Strive for product-user fit  - show viewers ads for products they’d actually use.

  2. Leverage context-congruency -  design ads that blend into the context.

  3. Appeal to emotion - tell authentic and creative stories that call out specific thoughts, feelings, and actions.

  4. Appeal to authority - ask content creators to share products with their followers through promos, sponsors, and partnerships.

  5. Keep ads short - keep them short enough to hold users’ attention but long enough to stick with them

  6. Give viewers autonomy - give viewers a choice in how and when ads are shown to them


Recommendations from an Industry Expert

These themes lay the groundwork for a deeper understanding of advertising, which we expanded on through an in-depth qualitative interview with a subject-matter expert, editorial director Kirk Pynchon. He helped us bridge the gap between academic theory and practical application. Kirk shared a ton of valuable information, about not only ad structure and content but also marketing strategy.  


Much of what Kirk said aligned with and expanded on the best practices and recommendations we read about in the academic literature and social media marketing material. He emphasized that successful ads: 

  • Feature a strong “hook”

  • A storytelling device used to capture viewers’ attention and drive engagement. In the context of short video ads, “the goal is to get at least a 3 second hook followed by 10 seconds focused on building community around brand awareness.”

  • Stay authentic

  • Authentic, genuine, and unfiltered ads with real people show the best engagement. According to Kirk, it is “real people doing real ridiculous things” that seem to do well. This includes people making mistakes!

  • Foster co-creation 

  • Brand co-creation invites members of the brand community to engage with the company, often playing a key role in the development of the brand. This dialogue can happen on social media, and can effectively function as advertising. Together, these qualities drive organic growth, a strong indicator of ad success. This metric can be measured and tracked as “the number of views and shares a post has.” 


Importantly, Kirk shared nuanced marketing strategies with us that we hadn’t seen mentioned elsewhere. These included:

  • Cross-posting ads

  • Sharing the same ad on different platforms is often more useful than you think. Some TikTok ads do better on Instagram reels, or as Facebook posts, allowing them to reach a more diverse audience and ultimately increase engagement.

  • Subtle branding

  • Letting the brand image take a back seat can allow for a more interesting viewing experience. Remaining nameless (at first) bypasses users' preconceived beliefs about a brand, keeping them open and curious. This also makes room for greater creativity, as these ads can’t be carried by brand name alone. 

  • Bad attention is good attention (sometimes) 

  • To be clear, bad attention is often just bad attention. However, tolerating negativity seems to pay off. Posts that generate negative comments, for example, also tend to generate greater engagement. It might feel counter-intuitive, but bad can be good. At the end of the day, “comments are comments. They generate buzz and they generate algorithms. So as long as it's not hurtful, let them say bad things about you. No one cares. They'll just move on to the next video.”


What do the Viewers Think?

Next, we developed a survey to hear from real people. We know what Snapchat thinks, but what does the typical ad viewer have to say? Quantitative and qualitative data were collected from 14 social media users. Despite the small sample, many trends were statistically significant. Here's what we found:


Most viewers (65%) reported negative attitudes about social media ads. Specific negative emotions include: 

  • annoyance or frustration 

  • distress or distrust

  • disappointment

  • contempt

  • poor perception of brand


When

These negative emotions were mostly related to the when (ad timing and length), what (content and strategy), and who (information source and quality) of ads.


These negative emotions can be avoided by showing viewers short ads in unobtrusive ways. For example, only 79% of respondents reported negative feelings when an ad plays before, instead of during, a video (95% CI, 49% to 95%). This difference is statistically significant and means that running ads before as opposed to during a video could reasonably decrease the number of viewers who experience negative emotions by over 50%.


Interestingly, despite their dislike of obtrusive ads, viewers aren’t totally sold on covert ads, or ads that blend into their surroundings so well that you don’t immediately recognize them as ads. About half of viewers feel negative and half feel positive when they don’t realize the video they’re watching is an ad (p>.05). Importantly, this is at odds with the popular recommendation to make ads context congruent.


What

Ad content also has a strong influence on viewers’ emotions. All respondents (100%) reported feeling negative emotions while watching ads for products they don’t like, compared to only 29% while watching ads for products they do like (95% CI, 8% to 58%). This means targeted ads have the potential to decrease the number of viewers who experience negative emotions by over 90%.


Similarly, many viewers expressed a desire for product-led (50%), “no-nonsense” (21%) ads. Qualitatively, these ads were described by viewers as clearly conveying the value of the product, without relying on gimmicks to grab their attention. 


Who

We also asked respondents to rate how likely they’d be to consider buying a product that was introduced to them in a few different ways. We wanted to see if viewers are influenced by who (paid actors, influencers, family and friends) are advertised to them. Viewers felt much more likely (+30%) to purchase products introduced to them by a family member or friend as compared to an actor or influencer (p<.05).



This difference was associated with negative feelings due to a sense of “phoniness,” with many viewers expressing a desire for ads with trustworthy (43%), relatable (21%) people, including actual users.


Final Thoughts

Overall, when crafting advertisements that strike a chord with audiences, we recommend a philosophy of respect, authenticity, and non-intrusiveness. We suggest that social media advertisers focus on creating video ads that feel authentic and unobtrusive. Perception of an ad’s authenticity will vary, depending on both the type of content typical of the platform and that produced by the user promoting the product. However, authenticity can generally be achieved by evoking a sense of trust in the user. This can be done by 1) clearly communicating the value of the product, 2) avoiding gimmicks, and 3) featuring real users. To ensure ads are unobtrusive, they should be brief, optionally positioned before content, and skippable, granting viewers autonomy.


After meeting these general recommendations, ads (particularly the hook) should be developed so that they feel unique, creative, and interesting. These aspects of the ad should be left to the product promoter’s discretion and without too much input and oversight from the marketing team. The strategic deployment of ads, guided by a commitment to positive impact, aims not only to engage viewers but to foster a deeper connection between the consumer and the brand, signaling a shift towards advertising that champions transparency, respect, and societal contribution.


Authors: Sam Light, Andrew Villamil, Franklin Chen, and Joseph Reyes


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