By Jesse Hagen | 12 minute read
Jesse Hagen is a Creative Director in Movement’s NYC office. Father to a two-year-old boy, Hagen has embraced old man life with reckless abandon. Rappers enunciated lyrics in his day!!!
Scene: you’re at work. Yes, and now your coworker just discovered the most embarrassing photo on your phone. Action!
Chances are, whatever neurons fired in your brain when you read that premise could lead to some extremely relatable video content. What your brain formulated is the foundation of a “bit.”
It’s called improv, dahling, and some of your favorite video creators are utilizing its principles to make you laugh. It’s also something our New York video production team has started implementing into our Instagram Story ads to drive traffic to this site, so if you happened upon this article from one of those, you know it can be effective.
While many are likely familiar with improv comedy at large, its gradually-evolving relationship to ephemeral video content is more of a (poorly guarded) trade secret. Want in? Get out of your head and let’s riff.
Aging Like Fine Vine
Nothing conditions performers to generate unexpectedness better than to get comfortable venturing into unscripted weirdness. And when competition is lightning-in-a-bottle moments of kids saying ridiculous things, priceless misinterpretations of lyrics, or everyday unplanned hijinks, a full-time creator’s best weapon is the ability to materialize absurd hilarity from any premise as soon as inspiration strikes.
In the social video landscape, that ability became particularly crucial to generating huge followings with the rise of Vine (to an extent this was true of YouTube too, but YouTube hadn’t fully honed its social building approach until a bit later).
If social media platforms were celebs, Vine would be in the 27 club: indelibly vibrant, highly influential, and gone too soon. Many of Vine’s viral moments became enduring internet catchphrases (“wtf, is this allowed?,” “he need some milk,” “Adam!”), and some of its stars (King Bach, Gabbie Hanna and David Dobrik) have fashioned lucrative careers in media following the platform’s demise.
While Vine’s failure to embrace its creators is a saga unto itself, its impact on ephemeral video continues to be felt. A huge reason why was its community’s “anything might happen” ethos.
In June 2019, ex-Viners Miel Bredouw and Demi Adejuyigbe hosted Bredouw’s former improv coach Ben Siemon on the “London Bridge” episode of their “Punch Up The Jam” podcast, where Siemon revealed he “taught so many Vine people improv,” and is now trying to network with former students.
Self-deprecating tragicomedy aside, Siemon’s revelation not only hinted at where a lot of Vine’s magic came from, it spoke to how those same skills have become increasingly relevant in the 2019 video landscape. When a time limit is imposed on a piece of video content, character development falls by the wayside, and a jolt of spontaneity becomes a video’s primary vehicle for immediate intrigue and replayability (a similar principle, but for writing, applies to the more enjoyable parts of Twitter).
Even though Vine is now a relic of the internet, its vivid improvisational spirit is thriving elsewhere.
I Got a Story to Tell
Though neither match Vine’s unbridled madcap energy, Snapchat and Instagram Stories emerged in the post-Vine era to become the short form B-roll of our lives: the places we go to watch dashed-off snippets from friends, brands, and personalities.
Many comedic voices that made Vine such an idiosyncratic destination later flocked to Instagram to continue expanding their audiences. Stories gives them an outlet tailor-made for their Vine-groomed cinematic talents. Instagram’s programmers have done their part to aide such improvisational storytelling, rolling out a slew of features like face filters, music overlays, GIF stickers, and interactive polls.
All those features augment Stories with fun, sketchbook-esque flourishes that can set up or enhance a one-off joke. Take the “TV Show” Superzoom feature. It plays cheesy 80’s sitcom synths as the camera auto-zooms and center frame is matted with a satiny purple glow. Ever seen it used unironically? Of course not. If you’re seeking earnestness, go share friendaversary videos on Facebook.
However, the most crucial component to Stories’ ability to do improv humor so well is in its disappearing nature; it’s in that regard that Instagram owes Snapchat a mighty debt (though thanks to byzantine copyright law, not a monetary one). The social pressure for high follower counts and adequately “high” likes on polished grid photos gave way to the rise of Finstas, pushing the photo-sharing giant to crack down on fake followers and ponder hiding public like counts.
Stories was a measure to dispel that pressure. If a Story doesn’t engage as highly, nbd. It’ll be gone in 24 hours. Alternatively, if something sticks, you can highlight it, preserving a customizable playlist of your favorite Story moments atop your profile. Vitally, nobody except the poster sees viewing stats, but they can solicit audience participation in a manner that adds a dynamic to the content itself.
So, where does that tie back to improv? Well, much like an improv show, a guiding structure is far looser, if it exists at all. It’s a casual conversation with the audience that can go in several different directions depending on variables determined in real-time. Not every bit is going to land, but when one does, it’s more likely to hit a sublime note that’s nearly impossible to replicate in something more heavily-produced.
New Rules: No Rules
When compared to an Instagram Story, humor in traditional TV ads—or even promoted grid posts—feels flatter. That’s because it’s likely focus-grouped to death: sanding off distinct features to appeal to the broadest comedic base possible. A talking duck? Wow.
By contrast, Stories can lean into the experimental, unafraid to wander into quirk or casually disregard the formality of the Fourth Wall. In fact, formal ad conventions can be poison to a Story ad’s success rate. In a best practices deck, Facebook alludes to how brands should channel an improv vibe when producing Story ads:
- Top performing ads have shorter, more succinct scenes
- People keep the sound on in Stories much more than in feed video
- Viewers expect more playfulness in Stories
- Limit unnecessary stickers and text
They’re quick to caveat that the newness of Stories as a commercial platform means these rules aren’t ironclad. Still, even viewed as guidelines, such insights indicate the huge potential for a looser, more improvisational approach to filming than major brands might be used to.
Companies used to rigorous rounds of edits and focus group testing may balk at going fully freewheeling, but if they’re interested in utilizing Instagram Stories, they’d be wise to at least tone it down to business casual.
Obligatory House Ad(s)
The self-evident truth of Facebook even releasing a Stories deck to begin with is this: it’s ineffective to simply repurpose a pre-existing short social cut when the user behavior for Stories differs so significantly from how people interact with Instagram’s grid feed (let alone an entirely different platform).
That serves as a microcosm of the golden social media rule™: if you’re retrofitting content without asking why and how a user interacts with a platform/feature, you’re likely experiencing diminishing returns (we don’t need a talking duck to tell you we can help with that).
I’m meandering (so improvisational). The point is, Instagram Stories offers the perfect avenue for brands to get a little funky, and while relinquishing a rigid process may feel like a risk, the bigger risk may be showing up too late to the party. According to Nanigans, ad spend on Stories (Instagram and Facebook) is up 77% YOY in Q2 2019, while CPM is almost universally cheaper regardless of your objective.
We know this firsthand. Remember those house ads I mentioned? We keep things pretty loose on set when we shoot those. Why? It’s in peoples’ nature to feel performative on camera, and viewers, particularly young ones, are turned off when something feels too staged.
When the New York video production team conceived of our House Ad series, we ultimately made the decision to shoot without a script. Sure, this approach lengthens the time for each shoot, and we don’t know what we’re going to end up with when we start rolling! But following improvisational impulses as a group proves liberating not only during the shoot, but in the editing process.
When we edit each installment, we use the room’s reactions as emotional cues, keeping laughs and stray comments from the peanut gallery in each cut. Ultimately, those make our Stories align more with what else people see in their Stories feed. It looks and sounds more like a group of friends having fun together and less like a didactic plea to visit a website.
Granted, there are occasions where an Instagram Story may call for more structure and polish, but leveraging the lessons of improv can be a tremendously effective way to inconspicuously reach an audience that’s conditioned to love stories that seem plucked from thin air.
Yes, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun than sticking to the script.
Movement Strategy is a social media and digital marketing agency for leading entertainment & sports, lifestyle & ecommerce, and food & beverage brands.
© Movement Strategy 2019
© Movement Strategy 2019