When making a video – what is the perfect length?

29th January 2021

How long should a video be? This question sounds straight forward enough but unfortunately, the answer is far from simple.

If only to prove a point, I’m going to start this by breaking a cardinal rule: never send people away from your blog in the first paragraph. I want you to open a new browser tab, go to Google and type in how long should video content be. I’ll wait…

… welcome back. Did you see the answer above? Two minutes. No argument. Thanks for coming to my 30-second TED talk.

If you got to the small print, it’s two minutes or less – with exceptions. But it’s an illustration of how easy it is, in a world where information and research has never been easier to come by, to take a simple answer to a complicated question. And it’s why so many people are getting their approach to video length wrong.

What is the right length for video content?

Humans love simplicity. Coffee is black or white, despite being two different shades of brown. Even though we live in a theoretically complex multiverse, we find the idea of ‘empirical’ truth appealing, whether it’s stone tablets etched with rules for living or the ‘right’ length of your Facebook video. That’s just how people are.

But ‘two minutes’ is the wrong answer to the question ‘how long should video content be?’. The right answer is ‘well, it depends’.

Earlier I joked about my 30-second TED talk. A TED talk tops out at 18 minutes. The top 12 most watched TED talks average 14 minutes each. The shortest in that sample is Bill Gates’ prescient 2015 talk ‘The next outbreak we’re not ready.’ It takes less than eight and a half minutes. He had nearly 10 minutes left to warn people that a pandemic was almost certainly coming.

Chris Anderson, curator of TED, justifies the 18-minute rule as “long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention… it’s the length of a coffee break. So you watch a great talk and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral very easily.”

It’s hard to think of a more recognisable video package than a TED talk, so why isn’t the answer to ‘how long should video content be?’ 18 minutes

It is. For TED. And 10 seconds might be the right length if your target audience is a teenager on a smartphone watching a TikTok video while they’re waiting to cross the road.

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Video length: it’s complicated

The truth is that there is no ‘right’ length for video content. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get your video content length right. Wistia made an interesting study of video length. It found that, yes, shorter videos were more engaging than long ones (30-second videos were watched 85 per cent of the way through on average, versus 50 per cent for two-minute videos). Yet the viewing percentage for videos between two and 10 minutes long was relatively consistent.

What can we draw from this? Shorter videos have broadly better engagement, but those who are willing to stick around will watch for as long as the content holds their attention.

Not as simple an answer as ‘two minutes’, but it’s a start

How do I get video length right?

To understand the ‘right’ length for a piece of video, you need to answer a few questions. Who is your target audience for this content? What stage of the sales journey are they at? In what scenario are they likely to watch your content? How much time have they got?

I say this because I don’t believe that people won’t watch more than 30 seconds – or indeed two minutes – of video content. People are engaged with webinars that last an hour or more. TV shows now routinely last an hour, and are extended into multiple series. If you binged Law & Order back to back, it would take 19 days. That’s more than two and a half weeks, without sleeping. It’s an extreme example, but TV producers don’t carry on making high-budget shows unless people are watching them. The idea that no one can manage more than two minutes of video any more is bunkum.

All that will give you a basic idea of their tolerance for video length, at which point you need to ask the more important question: how much have I got to say? Be brutal and say less than you think… You’ll be doing yourself a favour.

The multiverse of video content

Because there’s no ‘right’ answer to ideal video length, you can break all the other rules too. Why have one piece of content, designed to sit across different media or reach people in different parts of your sales funnel? You can, and should, create different content for different use cases.

When Hurricane Media was asked to come up with a TV advertising campaign for Sykes Holiday Cottages at Christmas, we duly created a 30-second commercial video for TV. But the digital strategy required a different approach, so we made a series of 4 sperate 15-second social media video. There were highly targeted concentrating on Skyes’ focus customer groups. We’ve got a happy client and lovely external feedback on the campaign.

Around the same time, we were working on that campaign, we created a fundraising engagement piece for homeless charity Shelter. That was a 45-minute long* Christmas carol concert. They made more money in one day than they’ve ever made before – and people were watching right through to the end.

So what is the answer to ‘what is the right length for video content?’ Fifteen seconds or 30 seconds or 18 minutes or 45 minutes or 19 days? Or something else? Or a mix?

It’s all of these.

And it might – just might – be ‘two minutes’.

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