Digital media technologies and trends may change quick as a wink, but few have transformed as rapidly as mobile video.

Just five years ago, the ubiquity of vertically oriented videos was viewed as an issue serious enough to warrant a public service announcement. That message might have been tongue-in-cheek, but “vertical video syndrome” was considered a real affliction.

The widespread belief that mobile video should be shot — and viewed — horizontally wasn’t without logic. After all, we’d been watching horizontal content on TV and movie screens for years. In the past, most mobile video footage was viewed on computer and tablet screens — also horizontal. Uploading a vertical video to those devices would create black bars on either side of the image that were necessary to fill the blank space on a horizontal display. The result was both unsightly and disruptive to the viewing experience.

The way we engage with video content now is quite different. New research from video technology firm Ooyala found that more than 56 percent of online video views worldwide occur on a mobile device, with nearly 47 percent of video plays coming from smartphones. This uptick in mobile-video viewing has spawned a vertical-video revival. These days, vertical video is no longer a syndrome but a marketing, publishing, and creative best practice.

Reorienting the viewer experience

“Vertical videos should be taken seriously,” says Simone Bocedi, a creative content strategist with global ad agency TBWA\Helsinki in Finland. “The adoption of vertical videos by brands is long overdue.”

That’s largely because many publishers and social networks have already embraced the format. YouTube has been playing vertical videos full-screen, rather than applying those black bars, since 2015. Mobile messaging app Snapchat has been encouraging its advertisers to use vertical video for several years, emphasizing that vertical video ads are viewed in completion nine times more often than its horizontal ads. Last year, Facebook began displaying more vertical videos on its mobile site and told the media its users spend more time with vertical videos in their News Feeds, compared to the alternative.

“You want to make the user feel comfortable and give him a good experience, right? Then don’t ask him to turn the phone sideways,” Bocedi says. He notes several other benefits to the vertical approach. Aside from being “more natural for the user who is already scrolling through a limitless feed on social media,” vertical video is the superior choice for content like selfies or vlogs (video blogs), as it’s better suited to showcasing the human face.

An expression of sheer presence and freedom. The all-new #BMW #X3.

A post shared by BMW (@bmw) on

All of this appears to be influencing consumers’ video viewing preferences. Digital video ad company YuMe recently published the results of a survey that shows 79 percent of first-time vertical video viewers believe the format creates “a more engaging content experience,” while 69 percent thought it afforded a less intrusive ad experience on mobile. Sixty-five percent of the survey respondents told YuMe they consider brands that employ vertical video to be “more innovative.” That’s compelling information for advertisers and publishers, both of whom stand to win big when consumers develop a positive impression of their content.

The creative challenges of going vertical

While vertical video has its perks for consumers, it can take some getting used to for creators, especially if they’re accustomed to seeing things — landscapes, night skies — through a horizontal lens. For Corey Rich, a photographer, director, and Nikon brand ambassador who shares his love of photography and storytelling in association with the camera brand, the key to using vertical video effectively is to know when and where it has the most value.

“Personally, I find that when I’m travelling and sharing Instagram Stories, I’ll shoot vertical video frequently when I’m using my phone to supplement the professional content I’m creating,” Rich says. Instagram began supporting vertical video’s 4:5 aspect ratio in late 2016, and now offers vertical video ads in the Stories section of its app as well. Adds Rich, “There’s an application, a purpose, and a rationale for vertical video, and it stems from consuming media on our mobile phones.”

BMW is among the advertisers currently using vertical video in Instagram Stories. Image credit: Instagram

Increasingly, these same rules apply to photography. Last year, two sports photo editors with The New York Times told TIME that its photos go through three rounds of editing to get them just right for print, the digital desktop, and mobile. “On mobile, there’s no question that a vertical image makes the most of the format,” the editors reportedly said.

When working with a vertical format for video, the challenge for Bocedi is to consider the angle and “new ways of looking at a scene.” With an aspect ratio of 16:9 — common in computer monitors and TV screens — “you have more retail space to play with,” he says. “With vertical, the focus is limited.”

So what’s a marketer to do? Take a cue from the experts at the vertical-film festivals that are cropping up in places like New York (i.e. Slim Cinema Vertical-Film Festival) and Australia as filmmakers and brands experiment with mobile storytelling. The organizers of Australia’s Vertical Film Festival advise creators to “look out for strong vertical features in the composition” and employ low and tall angles, which “take on renewed power in the vertical format.”

The only way is up

While Bocedi isn’t sure that 2017 will be the year publishers and brands collectively recognize the value of vertical video, he’s hopeful that it will happen soon. His mantra? “Think mobile first. Always mobile first.”

Corey Rich notes that while vertical is rising in popularity, there’s still a place for horizontal video. “I don’t envision our movie theaters and televisions switching to vertical formats,” he says. The goal for users of all kinds should, therefore, be to make the most of the format at hand.

“I think at the end of the day, whether we’re shooting square, vertically or horizontally, or in a circle, it all comes down to the same fundamentals,” Rich says. “Content is king, and the most important aspect of shooting is knowing what particular story you’re trying to communicate.”
And that’s the straight-up truth.