It’s Hip to be Square: The Impact of Aspect Ratio on Social Media
Finding Myself Boxed In
Around a week ago, I found myself in the middle of a rather heated debate over a post on Facebook. This wasn’t some political statement or controversial article, as you might expect would cause some blowback, but rather…a new trailer for this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming film. (Which looks awesome, if I do say.)
Now, controversy is no stranger in the world of entertainment, especially comic book movies, but even at that, the video wasn’t being slammed for being unfaithful to its source material. Or having bad CGI. Or any other irk typically attributed to this type of content. Rather, the grievances were about the video’s aspect ratio! The video I shared was presented in 1:1 format, or square, as you can see below - not the typical 16:9 letterbox format.
What proved so vexing about this? Simply put, it was argued that by restricting the aspect ratio into a square frame, rather than the traditional widescreen 16:9 or 4:3 views, the audience were losing out on details and overall quality from the video itself, as if ‘watching through a smart postage stamp’ to lift a direct quote, so why go to the bother of cropping it?
It’s a very valid point to make, and so it poses the question – why is 1:1 becoming the new norm on social media if it seems to generate such a negative response? Is it just a flash in the pan scenario? Or is it the way forward fpr creating engaging video content? Should you make the effort to ‘be square’?
Getting to the (Square) Root of the Problem
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. The implementation of this square video style has been made to be beneficial for mobile users, with their device in a portrait orientation. Over 90% of Facebook’s 1.74 billion monthly users access the social network from their mobile device, with 60% of those being mobile-only users, so it makes sense to create content to better suit the mobile space.
And my, has it become popular! I can almost guarantee that you will have encountered a 1:1 video on your Facebook feed in the last day. Those quick recipe videos littering your feed that your friends are desperate to try out, for example? Those are almost universally presented in 1:1 format.
Funnily enough, the popularity of these square videos originated from one of Facebook’s many subsidiaries, Instagram. Until an update in late 2015, all content on Instagram was restricted into a square frame, including video content when it was introduced in 2013. This limitation obviously meant that companies had to get creative when it came to making sure their output was as impactful to their audience as possible. This led to a lot of positive traffic, and as a result, eventually bled over into Facebook, leading us to where we are now.
How is it that square video is steadily becoming more prevalent on our social feeds? Well, I’ll jump into the nitty gritty soon, but first, answer me this: which of the two videos below would be more likely to grab your attention while you’re on the morning commute?
From a design standpoint, this is why I am in the 1:1 Camp, and it’s why I’m writing this blog in the first place. It’s my job here at Hydrogen to make sure that content published by our own and clients’ social media accounts is not only keeping up with the trends, but is consistently eye-catching and engaging. The way I see it, the sacrifice of smaller details or unnecessary fluff in favour of bigger, bolder visuals is a great move. Marry that with creating quality copy content and you’re on your way to raking in those engagement numbers.
Attention’s creative Director, Ben Krantz said: “It’s like the new billboard in the sense – no one wants a smaller billboard, and people want to get the most out of the space.” - and it’s a pretty apt comparison, especially for anyone out there working in digital.
However, as was mentioned initially, this video – this billboard – was a crop of the full 16:9 trailer released on the likes of YouTube simultaneously. This was the biggest gripe of my friend in our debate; the idea that the square version I had posted simply cut off most of the content. It should be noted, though, that these crops are more than just clipping the sides off, as Tadleckman’s Los Angeles: 2019 blog has demonstrated.
While they might not be the most elegantly composed edits, they still do exactly what is intended and keep what grabs your attention in the frame. Everything the advertisers want you to see, you see. Have a look at his stacked comparison of a previous trailer for Spider-Man, and you can see for yourself.
And indeed, some marketers have begun creating video content specifically tailored for 1:1 to accompany the rest of their campaigns, as opposed to these simple crops, such as interviews for this year’s Ghost in the Shell, and the food prep videos from the likes of Buzzfeed’s Tasty.
So now we know why we’re seeing this type of content and how marketers tend to go about creating them, we need to know if square video is having any impact? Is it generating more engagement or is it, as I was told, causing audiences and potential customers to scroll past or switch off?
Another Square-Related Pun
Back in March, the folks over at Buffer set out to discover what makes video content so successful across social platforms. After looking at a variety of elements including length, graphic quality and the subject of the video itself (all crucial too, don’t you forget!), they came across the statistic that our old friend, the 1:1 ratio video takes up 78% more real estate on the average mobile newsfeed than the traditional landscape video. This nudged them into spending over $1,500 on experiments and research into testing their new hypothesis that ‘square’ simply would perform better, despite the drawbacks we already discussed.
While they go into great detail about their results, they begin the report by confirming 3 main things to take away from their findings:
As already mentioned, people primarily consume social content on mobile devices, which means that adapting content to suit this method of browsing is crucial if you want to stay relevant, much like the importance of having a mobile-optimised website
Secondly, and most importantly to our discussion, their experiments found that square video came out on top when competing against traditional 16:9 video. Across a variety of parameters, from total views, interactions and overall video completion rate across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Buffer found that 1:1 ratio video generates more engagement. In some cases, square video resulted in 30-35% higher video views and an 80-100% increase in engagement compared with landscape video
Lastly, and perhaps what could be even better news to some ears, using square video in social ads is cheaper! On Facebook, Buffer found that square videos cost 7.5% less than landscape videos for engagement. And on Instagram, there was a greater cost saving - engagement costs were a third cheaper than for landscape videos. Happy days!
With that, then, it seems pretty conclusive that square is the way to go, right? Well, for those of us working in social marketing, I would say almost absolutely. Almost.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. Certainly, we’ve talked about the fact that an enormous number of social users are on mobile, but that doesn’t mean that we’re glued to our phones all the time (despite what our parents and grandparents might think). If your target audience is more likely to use Facebook on a desktop, then landscape videos were found to cost less per engagement than square videos.
Also, have you noticed a pattern emerging with the content we’ve highlighted? Trailers. Clips. Short-form content. If your content, like our cropped trailer, is by its nature a little more energetic and moves around a lot, with lots of cuts and edits, it should perform well as 1:1, especially if it’s only a few minutes or less. This is also why short meme videos are incredibly popular - easy to watch in a few seconds, and move on.
Long-form content, however – interviews, music videos, and longer movie clips – videos that don’t necessarily have these quick cuts to keep your eyes focused and moving – won’t perform as well in square. To reference Tadleckman again, “Watch the whole movie 1:1 on a phone? No. But a trailer, solely meant to generate interest in a film, sure.”
To sum up: When creating video, select an aspect ratio that fits the video’s objective and intended audience, regardless of what the numbers say. Even though most of the video content I create at Hydrogen is 1:1, I’ll produce 16:9 videos when the occasion calls for it.
Know your audience, know your content and then you’ll know what video format you should use..