What we learned from working with vertical video on Facebook

If you thought you could just drop footage in a vertical template, you’re in for a surprise.

Sebastian Vega
Media Center Lab
Published in
6 min readMay 3, 2017


In case producing native content for a variety of social platforms isn’t enough work, Facebook now offers three ways to present video on its platform: horizontal, square and vertical. Vertical video — which has been on the rise in recent years thanks to the dominance of mobile — is the biggest departure from ~the way we’ve always done things~. Since falling back on old newsroom habits is a terrible way to run an audience-focused social account, here’s a guide to trying vertical video on Facebook, based on USC Annenberg Media’s experiments with it since the company announced its wide rollout in February.

1. A good vertical video starts in the field

Shooting your video for traditional formats won’t always cut it for vertical. You need to go wider than you would for a typical horizontal video. Otherwise, vertical pieces can get really intimate really quick. Shoot too tight and you’ll surely run out of space for on-screen text.

Take the videos below, for example. The reporter who shot this interview captured a beautiful shot for his video — the subject was looking off screen, he was very well lit and almost perfectly aligned with the rule of thirds. Unfortunately, adhering to the grid doesn’t guarantee a great shot for vertical viewing.

Only a sliver of the original video can be seen when cut vertical. Shooting wide is highly recommended to avoid the tight shot. Adjusting your camera in the field may even give you some more room for on-screen text when you get to editing.

Only a sliver of the original shot can be seen when the video is cut vertically. I strongly recommend shooting wide to avoid the cluttered tight shot. This means you should move your camera a couple steps back from your subject when you’re interviewing. This will make the person much smaller in your viewfinder, but have no fear, that’s perfect for 9:16 videos! This will definitely give you more room for animations and text when you get to editing.

Here’s a perfect example of the wide shot I’m describing. Although this image is taken from a live vertical video, the same rules apply. Not only do we have more room for text, but our subject is much easier to see.

Take a look at the difference in free space in the GIFs of the first example above. If we wanted to, we could have fit a couple more words on the horizontal cut, but the vertical video is tapped out. Not only is there no more space on the vertical cut, but most of the words on the screen have fewer than three letters. What if we wanted to write out a lengthier sentence, maybe one with 10 longer words? Stacking more text would clutter the shot, or lead to the subject eating his or own words (in the visual, and not metaphorical, sense). If you shoot wide, you’ll have more space to stack text in post production.

Here’s a perfect example of the type of wide shot you should shoot for (pun intended 😉). Although this image is taken from a live vertical video, the same rules apply. Imagine if we downloaded this video, cut out our favorite soundbites and added captions. Not only would we have more room for our text, but our subject would be much easier to see. Shooting wide for vertical is much easier on your phone since it’s intuitive (yes, you can finally shoot vertical), but don’t be fooled on another camera! If you don’t take steps back, adding text will surely be a hassle later.

2. Don’t be afraid of having more than two lines of text on the screen.

Five rows of text? Well, yes. There’s no way we could have fit this short sentence onto two lines. Don’t be afraid of having more than two lines of text on vertical videos.

It’s already hard enough to get text on the screen for social videos, but what happens when you have only have a third of the screen to work with? At Annenberg Media, we strive to stick to a strict rule of eight to ten words on the screen so our viewers have enough time to take in our content. For this rule to carry over onto vertical videos, you have to break up your text into two to five lines. In comparison, most, if not all, horizontal and square videos you see on social only have two rows of text.

Check out this screenshot. Five rows?? Well, yes. There’s no way we could have fit the second half of this sentence onto two lines. You can decide how big or small you want your text to be, but you’ll most likely have to break it up more than you normally would for horizontal and square video.

3. Be prepared for variations in the News Feed

You’d think Facebook would catch the kinks, right?

We compared how our pieces appear across various screen sizes and found some users see smaller video previews than others. Take a look at the images below to see for yourself.

Unfortunately, the preview on the left (iPhone 6S) shows up as square until you click the video. This means both the top and bottom of the screen is chopped off, making it illegible in the feed. The video on the right, however, previews the full video! It almost takes up the whole screen!

Unfortunately, the video preview on the left (iPhone 6s) shows up as square in the feed until you tap the video. This means both the top and bottom of the video is chopped off, making it illegible as your scroll.

The preview on the right, however, shows the whole video in the feed. It almost takes up the whole screen! This image came from an iPhone 6. Interestingly, both devices above are the same size.

So why does this matter?

One of the main attractions of vertical and square video is that they fill more space in users’ feeds as they scroll through Facebook. Various outlets, including our own, have found these less traditional formats bring in more engagement than their horizontal counterpart. I believe this is because the lengthier cuts catch your attention better than a thin, horizontal video.

TL;DR: You want the vertical video to fill the screen to catch more users, but if the video isn’t previewing as vertical, why even do it?

My guess is that Facebook hasn’t rolled out the vertical preview to everyone yet, but I can’t be sure. In any case, it’s not going to stop us from producing more vertical pieces!

4. Vertical isn’t only for video

Producing social videos takes time, manpower and, for some outlets, a good chunk of change. Fortunately, though, the vertical format — and its benefits — work for other file types. This means you can post GIFs, photos, graphics and even audiograms that look great on mobile. The GIF on the left is our first attempt at producing non-video vertical content.

Protip: If have a vertical video template, you can make GIFs in less than five minutes. Just construct your GIF in the video editor, export the MP4 and then upload the file to Giphy. From there, download it or link to your GIF.

I’ll admit, when it comes to vertical video, we haven’t tried it all, but we’ve definitely learned from our most recent efforts. We’ll use these guidelines going forward as we expand our vertical production in the fall, much like we did with square last fall when we saw they engaged more users than our horizontal cuts.

We’re convinced vertical videos are worth it. On average, our produced and uploaded vertical cuts reached more than 25,000 people, beating out both our square and horizontal post formats. Our average engagement for the 9:16 posts came out to be slightly lower than our square and horizontal videos, but I think the 1-point difference is negligible for the time being.

We haven’t even cracked the surface on what we can do visually with these vertical pieces! I personally think increasing vertical video production will lead us to creating more eye-catching, engaging pieces. In a lot of ways, this was our beta semester for vertical videos, but a great test nonetheless. It’s showed us there’s definitely potentially in the non-traditional format.

Take my tips above, and I’m sure vertical production will run much more smoothly. Just don’t forget, if you’re used to horizontal videos, you’re in for a surprise — your job just got a little more meticulous.



Sebastian Vega
Media Center Lab

Executive editor at @AnnenbergMedia on a mission to improve the way you receive news on social and mobile platforms 📱