Caleb Hearon has a story for you. It’s about Jonathan, who works in marketing. He can’t keep it quiet. So he decides to FaceTime you. He holds his phone up to his face and begins to chat with you about it. The story goes on for two minutes before it cuts out.
But Hearon didn’t tell you this story over FaceTime at all. Rather, he filmed himself talking to the camera and posted it on Twitter with a caption that instructed you to watch it as if he is FaceTiming you.
Hearon has shared little bites of this same story over a couple of months. In one snippet, he bemoaned how he had to go to an art show. In another, he rolled his eyes after his car broke down. He sighed as he recounted his time at a hospital. He preached about attending church. All of these little moments were shared over nearly a dozen two-minute videos.
Hearon’s story went viral during the winter. Retweets, likes and shares pushed the story out into the mainstream. Hearon’s story — though hilarious and binge-worthy in its own right — fits into the ongoing trend of short-form stories playing out all across social media right now, appearing on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and other apps.
In the modern age, Americans have not only dived deep into bingeing the latest hit Netflix show, which could have hour-long episodes. But viewers have also found interest in short-form videos that provide snippets of an exchange or a moment. Today, content isn’t just a television show or a movie. It’s a two-minute update on a fictional character’s life, just like we see with Hearon and his story. Or a brief encounter someone has with their friend at a grocery store.
Short-form video has its ground in the grassroots. People are sharing stories they relate to on the ground level. But as corporations hop on the trend, could we see short-form content in ways we’ve never seen before?
Yes. In fact, we already have.
How we engage with short content
There’s plenty of short-form content out there right now across multiple platforms. Much of these platforms are primarily mobile-based, meaning people can only watch the stories and clips form their phones.
Twitter is home to plenty of short-form content, like Hearon’s story and various other videos from content creators. You can see the same content on Facebook. We all have an aunt who’s shared a live video. There’s even a chance you’ll find those stories on Instagram, too. Hearon shared one video where you put yourself in the perspective of “a close friend venting to me about a situation where you were entirely in the wrong.”
But TikTok is where short-form content has exploded. Videos can last minutes at most. Several of the videos center around comedic skits. Sure there are dance routines and trick videos. And yet TikTok succeeds so well because it creates situational humor, almost like small videos you’d see in sitcoms. We see moments play out where we learn how couples treat each other. Others depict how someone working from home is spending quarantine. There are even videos where people pretend to be fictional versions of themselves. TikTok is the home base for content like this.
And then there’s Cameo, a uniquely new app that allows celebrities to send short-length videos to people for a small fee. For example, you can request a video from Mia Hamm, Sean Astin and Johnny Damon.
No matter where you look, short-form videos are available at your fingertips. And we’re more likely than ever to consider those videos when looking for something to watch.
Why we’re shifting to short form
It’s not surprising that people are moving toward short-form video, said Jon Niermann, CEO and co-founder of Loop Media and a former Disney and EA executive. Short-form content fits with current society where there isn’t always time to watch movies or binge your favorite show.
“I think it’s just consumer appetite. You know, I think that people are looking for bite-size,” Niermann said.
Experts saw the shift toward short-form videos and content. Slowly people watched less and less long-form videos and caught glimpses of shorter ones. That’s why Facebook videos became popular. People watch them for a minute or two. Anything more than that could lose people’s interest.
Short-form video succeeded because it is primarily user generated, Niermann said. Normal people create the short-form videos that go viral.
“It could have been anybody. It didn’t have to be a celebrity,” he said.
Short-form videos can be anything. It’s not a big blockbuster hit. It’s not a television show with a mystery box, or one that relies on intellectual properties.
“It can be seemingly mundane stuff. But they seem to get a big kick out of it,” Niermann said. “It’s just people posting stuff. But yet it’s meaningful. It’s got a very strong personal, emotional connection.”
Loop Media has jumped on the trend as well, creating an app that centers around short-form music videos. But more than that, the app serves as a unique place where people can watch music videos without having to jump in and out of YouTube.
“We can take the content and make it really engaging. That’s what we wanted to do.”
The key for Loop Media is a low budget. Give content creators the tools to make their own stories and music videos without any of the high Hollywood budgets. Make it feel authentic. Make it feel real. Don’t make it something grandiose and over the top.
While Loop has centered on making things low budget, others aim to create high-budget projects, which might not be fitting for the short-form video audiences.
Will corporate shift work?
Quibi is the first foray into short-form content from a corporation. The app is a mixture of short-form and the long-form we know. The service offers short-bite episodes that last about eight to 10 minutes apiece. People can watch all the mini-episodes over the course of an hour.
Meg Whitman, CEO of Quibi, told me that everyone has “in-between moments,” where you’re waiting between your Zoom call or in the fast-food drive-thru. Quibi’s episodes are meant to fill the void in those moments. They’re bite-sized episodes to watch.
“The shorter episodes fit into people’s daily life today,” she said.
People will open up Quibi and watch episodes before they go to sleep. The episodes work for people who want to watch something but don’t necessarily want to watch half-hour to hour-long programs.
The key, according to Whitman, was to create content that was Hollywood quality. High production value that could be gobbled up in a few minutes.
And, she said, Quibi won’t be the last company to embrace the idea. More companies will create Hollywood-level content for their phones.
“I think this is going to be the next screen that Hollywood creators engage in to tell stories in a new way because you have to tell them differently than you would tell them on TV or in movie theaters,” she said.
But how well will the shift work? It’s the same as a regular movie or television show, just broken down into shorter bits. People may not care for the format, either. At least not enough to subscribe to it, according to Alisa Perren, co-director of the media and entertainment industries program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Perren said she is “skeptical” of how well those platforms can work.
That’s why these companies hope to persuade younger audiences to join them since they spend more time on their phones. For example, 44% of teens check their phones when they wake up, according to Pew Research Center. Teens feel anxiety when they don’t check their phone. For many of today’s teens, life centers around the smartphone.
The key to corporations finding success with short-form video will depend on advertising, according to Shaun MacGillivray, president of MacGillivray Freeman Films. He told me companies will need to convince advertisers that the audience is there. That’s the only way they can find success and continue to support short-form content.
“It really comes down to do that growth, as far as people watching the content. People being a part of that platform. And then the advertising comes with it,” he said.
The trend toward video isn’t going away.
“People like visual stories,” MacGillivray said. “There’s no getting around it.”