The is basically one gigantic screen, but the “notch” right at the top of the display guides the owner on how to hold it. The phone should be held vertically, where the length is far longer than the width.
And yet, since the introduction of the iPhone a decade ago, online videos have forced people to turn their phone 90 degrees to view horizontally. The motion even inspired the name and marketing for Verizon’s go90, a video streaming app that launched in October 2015.
This year, however, the script was finally flipped. One of the biggest trends to emerge on popular social sites was vertical video — or video filmed in portrait mode rather than horizontally.
One of the biggest stories cementing this trend was when online video giant YouTube updated its app in August to begin playing vertical videos at full size, rather than shoehorning them into horizontal boxes as it had for so many years. The company also released a new feature for recording and sharing vertical-only videos in November.
Another indicator of this growing trend is its presence in popular new apps and some of the largest acquisitions of the year. For example, one of the fastest-growing apps this year, HQ trivia, changed live game shows by letting users play along on their phones. The “show” in this case is a vertical video of a trivia contest that awards winners cash prizes.
HQ wasn’t the only app to fully embrace portrait-style videos. Spotify also started promoting vertical music videos earlier this year, and lip-syncing app Musical.ly also embraced vertical videos before it was acquired in November for $1 billion.
MediaRadar, an ad sales analytics company, claims at least 112 sites were using vertical video over the first three months of 2017. And of course, Mashable was recognized with the 2017 Digiday Award for “most innovative publisher” in part due to our site’s new vertical video format Mashable Reels.
Of course, not every internet video is vertical these days. Movies and TV shows still use horizontal video to capture our attention, though at a decreasing rate. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are also growing in popularity and require viewing in landscape mode. Facebook Watch and Twitter Live may offer publishers both formats, but the overwhelming majority of shows are horizontal.
Still, humanity’s laziness — and the natural orientation of a smartphone — along with the ubiquity of smartphones and the growth of mobile online video helped give rise to more vertical video in 2017.
Vertical video is “completely aligned with user behavior. It seems obvious now, but when we all use our phone by default we’re all shooting vertically because we’re too lazy to put our phone sideways,” said Aaron Shapiro, CEO of digital consulting company Huge. “It’s a testament to everything great and terrible about user behavior all at once. We’re such passive creatures even the smallest behavior can just be giant barrier.”
Vertical’s slow rise
Vertical video is nothing new. As soon as Steve Jobs presented consumers with iPhone cameras, people started taking photos and shooting videos in portrait mode more frequently.
But videographers groaned.
“I strongly believe you lose visual real estate when displaying vertical video,” Anthony Quintano, head of video for Honolulu Civil Beat, told Mashable via Twitter message when asked for his opinion on the format. “Just because I don’t agree with it, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
Snapchat cofounder Evan Spiegel was one of those people who ignored peoples’ grievances. Valuable real estate was lost when people held their phones vertically while watching horizontal videos, Spiegel argued to advertisers at the Cannes Lions festival in 2015 as he pitched his 3Vs “vertical video views” strategy.
“Part of Snapchat’s appeal is that they’re not like everybody else, but that’s constantly a challenge when it comes to advertisers. Advertisers will do little to work more,” David Berkowitz, formerly chief marketing officer at global advertising agency MRY, told me at that time.
But as time has passed, advertisers and publishers have started to listen and create more vertical videos.
The good and the bad
For some publishers, embracing vertical video has been obvious as audiences increasingly come to sites via mobile devices.
“Our audience is 80 percent mobile at least,” Emily Smith, formerly chief growth officer of Brit+Co, told Mashable back in August.
Vertical Networks, a media company launched in late 2015 by Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth Murdoch, decided to focus more specifically on the format. Its show Phone Swap launched this year and was created exclusively for Snapchat Discover.
“We create premium short-form formats for mobile. Many of our shows have larger audiences than any show on broadcast television — with up to 14 million people tuning in to Phone Swap each week,” Tom Wright, CEO of Vertical Networks, told Mashable in an email interview.
the only thing i look forward to on sundays is the phone swap snapchat story
— kenzie • ia (@bastillekenz) September 17, 2017
Not every show by Vertical Networks is necessarily vertical in orientation, Wright told Mashable, but the studio is one of the few that has created a vertically formatted show for Facebook Watch, such as I Have A Secret.
Brit+Co also has created vertical-only content for Snapchat Discover. Unlike other publishers, Brit+Co doesn’t have a daily or weekly channel, but its pop-up channels on Snapchat have been received well, according to Smith. (Full disclosure: Mashable is also a Snapchat Discover partner).
“When you’re limited by certain specs and format sometimes that’s the best environment to come up with something unique,” Smith said.
Still, vertical video is not an easy format to adopt for designers and videographers.
“The problem with vertical or square videos is that you have to resize all your footage or animation,” Debbie Saslaw, who worked at HBO digital and helped build its creative for Snapchat. “Some companies shoot vertically, but it’s a waste of time if you want to repurpose that content.”
Meanwhile, horizontal video still remains the focus of TV broadcasters and high-end video bets like Facebook with Watch and Twitter with Live.
“As far as mainstream goes, you won’t see broadcasters change their ways now,” Quintano said. “You may see platforms make the option available for vertical, but it will never drop the option to watch something horizontal.”
Vertical video has never been more present among distribution platforms and publishers than it is right now, and yet, it’s arguably still early days.
“Publishers need resources — money, talent and technology — to build out their capabilities,” Todd Krizelman, CEO and cofounder of MediaRadar, wrote in his company’s white paper on vertical video.
TV has analytics firm Nielsen and a wealth of advertising dollars to back up the value of its format, but the shake-up among the brands that have pivoted to video has publishers wary of the bet on online video that is often optimized for smartphones.
“People want to consume as much in as little as possible, but whether that’s going to sustain and satisfy people, that’s a play,” said , chief digital strategist of public relations company MWWPR. “Why are we spending all this time and money on something that’s going to be scrolled through very quickly?”
Along with the rise of vertical, videos also are becoming more immersive with 360-degree viewing and augmented reality. Perhaps smartphone owners may be more motivated to flip their phones if it means placing a T-rex in their surroundings as Apple demonstrated in its iPhone X ads.
As Quintano noted, “Vertical video is just another step into the future.”