A Brief History of Vertical Video (So Far)

Once derided as an eyesore, the vertical format has gained legitimacy among video creators and advertisers…but it took a while to get there.

source: pixabay.com

Ever since the introduction of the 1.375:1 Academy ratio in 1932, horizontal shooting has been the standard practice for film and television. So naturally, online videos have largely followed suit. After all, the first motion pictures were commonly recorded as theatrical productions and early TV shows were essentially televised radio dramas. It takes time for new mediums to develop their own grammar, and vertical shooting emerged thanks to the mobile Internet and social media.

Incidentally, social media is a major reason why video is expected to account for 75% of all global mobile traffic by 2020. Facebook and Twitter are now “mobile first” destinations, while Instagram and Snapchat have always been mobile apps. All of them evolved to host and distribute video, but it was Snapchat that normalized vertical video.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

Prior to the rise of Snapchat, vertical video was a widely maligned format. It was a common grievance on Reddit, and YouTube’s Glove and Boots “educated” viewers about the topic in a PSA that went viral in 2012. At the time, vertical video was the hallmark of a digital dolt. Smartphones were getting better at capturing video, but the go-to outlet for sharing these recordings was still YouTube — a platform that uses a horizontal video player. Unfortunately, a vertical video in a horizontal video player makes for an awkward combination that results in chunky, bookended letterboxing.

Breakfast Television Montreal debates the “sinfulness” of vertical video, source: YouTube

“If these shooters had just tilted their phones 90 degrees, they could have avoided this!” cried online video snobs circa 2012.

Interestingly, 9:16 was the defining aspect ratio for Snapchat ever since the app launched back in 2011. Originally a message service where users shared “Snaps” of portrait images, Snapchat introduced support for video in 2012. The app continued to popularize vertical video with Snapchat Stories one year later. This feature enabled users to post temporary image and video sequences on their timelines. Like the “Snaps” that preceded it, the “Story” format was 9:16.

Over 60% of Snapchat users fall in the coveted 18-34 year old demo, so marketers took notice. Vertical video was no longer the format of the clueless videographer, now it was the preferred aspect ratio of Millennials and Gen Z. But no matter which demo they belong to, all smartphone owners hold their devices upright 94% of the time. Snapchat made waves by conforming to how people already use their mobile products.

VERTICAL GROWTH

When Snapchat launched their content network Snapchat Discover in 2015, the company began courting advertisers. They persuaded marketers to produce vertical interstitials with a maximum runtime of 10 seconds. Snapchat is a vertical environment made for ephemeral content, so these requirements gave way to a seamless ad integration with compelling results.

MediaBrix reports that vertical video ads in vertical environments demonstrate a 90% completion rate. They even tend to drive stronger engagement since the format agrees with mobile gestures like tap, scroll, and swipe. Vertical video ads exhibit 15 to 20% higher click-to-play rates than horizontal ones. Plus, units with dynamic end cards produce higher conversions and result in more valuable users.

source: Snapchat Ads

When a horizontal video loads on an upright smartphone, it plays minimized in the middle of a black space. Yet only 13% of viewers ever turn their devices to watch a horizontal video in full-screen. Conversely, a vertical video takes up most (if not all) of the mobile viewing area. It has ample real estate for text, graphics, and interactive overlays. The format creates a more immersive user experience and it offers advertisers a greater share of voice.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of vertical video is how it eliminates the need for screen turning. As Hearst Digital’s Troy Young puts it, “Any disruption before consuming an ad unnecessarily discourages users.” Prompting users to re-orient their devices or exposing them to suboptimal video sizes can be big turn offs. Thus, vertical video removes an advertising snag; it provides marketers with smoother access to connect a brand’s message with its target audience.

The IAB or MMA will eventually define official standards for vertical video ads. This will make them go mainstream across the mobile Internet and push them beyond supported platforms like Snapchat. Vertical video ads may await a full-scale implementation, but they are already satisfying advertisers who prize engagement over reach.

A vertical video sizzle reel from Contented, source: Vimeo

PORTRAIT OF A VIDEO

When Snapchat debuted, it effectively changed the conversation around vertical video. The app promoted a fresh approach to video creation that happened to work with smartphone ergonomics. Now that Facebook and Instagram have integrated video into their environments, they are starting to contribute to this trend as well.

Despite being big proponents of square video, both Facebook and Instagram have added support for vertical aspect ratios. Facebook now allows its users to post 2:3 videos on their timelines. The company also introduced vertical video ads, which reportedly generate 3 times more effective CPMs than their square counterparts. Meanwhile, Instagram permits its users to post 4:5 videos on their feeds. Both of these services co-opted Snapchat Stories and now they support 9:16 video/image sequences that “self-destruct” after 1 day.

Aspect ratio masking on mobile devices (with social support for vertical formats)

Taking a cue from live streaming pioneers Meerkat and Twitter’s Periscope, Facebook and Instagram implemented 9:16 aspect ratio support for their live streaming products. The format allows mobile viewers to watch, react, and comment on a live video while holding their devices upright. It facilitates user retention and interaction in a way that horizontal or square viewing areas cannot.

Twitter still advises its users to upload 16:9 horizontal video, however the outlet plans to adopt vertical video ads for its Moments tool.

And then there is YouTube. Much like a social destination, YouTube optimizes for different devices and it generates a significant amount of mobile activity. The service actually accounts for 50–70% of all video-based traffic across most mobile networks. YouTube’s desktop and mobile sites still use horizontal video players, but its app can now play 9:16 videos in their full vertical glory. The company is also developing “Reels,” a new feature for YouTube Creators that riffs on the Stories format.

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ’EM, JOIN ‘EM

It hardly takes any physical effort to turn a smartphone 90 degrees, but it is a vertical device by design. The position does not feel natural, and users generally like to keep one hand free so they can multitask — which is not easy to do with horizontal viewing. Accordingly, mobile app developers always design for vertical orientation. This is even relevant to games which (like video) have traditionally used landscape dimensions.

All this is not to say that horizontal aspect ratios are obsolete. They will not only endure as formats for film and television, but for online video as well. For instance, YouTube and Twitch are appropriately horizontal experiences because they can host longer-form content and perform on bigger screens. We simply have new creative options for different environments.

While vertical video is more suitable for handheld devices, that does not mean it is a great fit for every piece of mobile content. “The Godfather Part II” would never work as a vertical video, even if it were playing on an iPhone. Vertical video has its roots in UGC and it is derivative of the selfie photo. The shooting style captures facial expressions and body language more fully than horizontal framing. Remarkably, this is the same reason why oil painters use vertical compositions for their portraits. It just works better for certain subjects, especially personality driven ones.

Different Eras of Portraiture: A Jacques-Louis David painting and a Snapchat video turned meme

Artists have never constrained their images to one type of aspect ratio. Instead, they have always based their formatting decisions on specific things like content, environment, and audience. It is time to apply this rationale to video too.


Thank you for reading! I’m Therese Moriarty, a video and emerging tech consultant based in NYC. Visit my website for more information about video data and strategy.