Updated: Apr 3
I am a self-confessed word nerd.
I love reading. I grew up in a house with hundreds of books. I live in a house of my own with hundreds of books. But I also live in the era of video. Dozens of TV channels, Netflix, YouTube, TED talks, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus… Everything is video. Half the lessons my kids study at school include watching videos. Some include making videos.
Video has taken over marketing too. With cameras in our pockets and editing software readily available, anyone can have a go at marketing videos. Of course they won’t all be that good – but that’s the same for written marketing content.
So what’s the place for written content in this modern world of video marketing?
Video is naturally easier than reading or writing
If you think about it, evolution has conditioned us for video.
As a baby you have a pair of eyes. You learn to focus. You watch things – lots of things – every day of your life. Your ears process the soundtrack. Living is pretty much like a video with additional senses for taste, touch and smell.
Reading, on the other hand, is hard.
You don’t learn it automatically in your first few years of life. You have to work at it, for months or even years. Writing is laborious too. Remember practising your letters over and over?
No surprise that for most of human history, most people didn’t read or write.
When you think about it in these terms, it's hardly surprising that video has taken off the way it has. We just needed the technology to make our natural interaction style easy.
But ‘easy’ isn’t the only thing to consider
Just because something is easier, it’s not necessarily better.
When you’re talking pure entertainment, personal preference is what matters most. When you’re talking marketing, there’s a purpose behind the content. You need it to attract potential customers, engage them, then move them one step closer to buying.
Do people prefer video or written text?
Video is certainly ‘easier’ and more instantly attractive.
Animated video company Wyzowl say 69% of consumers would rather watch a short video to learn about a product or service. That’s a big percentage, but one in three still want a different medium.
Note also that these are consumers watching a short video. So it works for simple products and services, but what about complex sales? Advice on making a will or financial planning? Or in a business-to-business scenario such as choosing a CRM? The video may work as an introduction, but when people want to study details of a proposal or compare different options, other formats may work better.
You can see this in the MIT study below. People who wanted to learn were not as overwhelmingly in favour of video.
Emotion versus facts
By its very nature, video engages all the senses. Videos are ideal for telling stories and engaging emotions.
It’s often said that ‘people buy on emotions and justify on logic’. Video can be a great way to draw people in and prime their interest. But can it cover the entire journey?
That ‘logic’ may include data, or steps in a process, or comparison between options. It’s often easier to summarise these in written text, a diagram or a table, rather than in a video. People need to be able to find that justification easily – and video is not easily searchable at this point.
I mentioned complex services before. The same thing kicks in for expensive products. Think about cars. Lots of emotional ads on TV and online, but when it comes to crunch time, people pull out the specifications and pore over the details.
As this article from Entrepreneur explains, the preference for video or written text can change depending on whether you’re looking for ‘entertainment’ or ‘serious information’.
Are people retaining your message?
The education sector was beginning to use more video even before COVID took us all online. But is it more effective for learning?
The answer is unclear.
A quick Google brings up a number of video production companies out there claiming that ’viewers retain 95% of a message when they watch it in a video compared to 10% when reading it in text’. But try to find the source of that statistic. I tracked it to Insivia’s listing of video stats for 2013, then got stuck. And it’s not in their list of video stats for 2016, which makes me think they couldn’t verify it either.
On the other hand, Professor of Linguistics Naomi Baron claims that reading is more effective for learning than audio and video – and that reading print is even more effective.
She says one factor is that people think of video as ‘entertainment’ so they don’t focus as much. I know my kids multi-task and watch video while doing something else.
Other studies also suggest reading can be quicker since people can skim to the area they need to learn, and that it’s more effective for longer
In an MIT study, readers scored better on retention than video watchers, but the difference was too small to be conclusive.
More interestingly, MIT found that 30% actually preferred to learn by reading, while only 20% wanted to learn by video. (There were other options like lectures and hands-on learning.)
Are people finding your content in the first place?
Google certainly believe in video. They own YouTube. They have a video tab on their home page. But when it comes to search, Google don’t index the content of video the way they index written content.
500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute of the day. Imagine the processing power they’d have to invest to index all that. No wonder they don’t. But what that means is that if you want your video content to be found, you need to work on that.
The simplest thing to do is to add a transcription under the video.
A plain and simple transcription can still have issues.
Beware AI transcriptions which make mistakes on words, grammar and more
Speech is generally full of broken sentences, filler noises like ‘um’ and so on. They’re much more painful in a transcription.
Unless you primed your speakers carefully, they may not have used all the best keywords which you want to optimise for.
If possible, get your transcription edited and optimised for SEO. Make sure that includes an optimised title and description for each video too.
You can also add subtitles – just make sure they are in an external file format (eg SRT) which Google can read. Subtitles also help the 60-90% of people who watch online video without sound.
So what does all this mean for video vs written text?
The number one point is that you shouldn’t have to choose between video and written text in your marketing. Use both, but use them effectively. Based on all the points above, here’s how:
Use video to attract, tell stories and engage emotion
Use written text (blogs and case studies) to provide facts and explain detail
Optimise video by adding captions and / optimised transcriptions
Keep videos short. If you really have to have one long video, give people timestamps for the most important parts of it to help them navigate
Video to attract, engage and entertain. Text to convince and convert!