Interactive Narrative Video: Are You Not Entertained?
Interactive Narrative Video: Are You Not Entertained?

Playing with video is like playing with food – fun, but not the same as eating it.

Interactive video is new. It’s not brand new. The tech has been mainstream since 2005, and various brands, industries and platforms have been experimenting with the medium since – most notably several music videos, realtors creating virtual tours or augmented reality experiences and video streaming platforms looking to improve the user experience.

Of course in 2018, we all use interactive video tech constantly – every time we click “skip ad,” for example. And it sounds like something every brand should have in their video content toolbox when we talk about reaching Millennials who want experiences, choices and control. In 2015, AdWeek predicted that interactive video would be a “must have”:

Interactive video is just as it sounds like – an opportunity for viewers to not just watch, but to click, swipe and otherwise engage via call-to-action overlays, or a series of overlay elements.

Brands and platforms listened to these ambitious predictions for the technology and have been experimenting with interactive elements in their narrative videos.

But we’re not really sure it’s effective. Or practical. Or better than good, old-fashioned video.

Just because we can add a bunch of bells and whistles doesn’t mean we should.

How would brands use interactive narrative video?

As we at Ackerman McQueen often iterate, brands should be moving more toward engaging, story-driven, narrative content that influences audiences. Traditional, interruptive advertising is getting the “skip ad” treatment, and brands must find ways to engage audiences by providing them with valuable experiences.

In theory, adding an interactive element to these narrative videos can allow users more choices and a more engaging experience. Brands and platforms have been applying it in a variety of ways such as:

  • Shoppable narrative video: a “hotspot” overlay allows users to either add visible products to their cart as they watch the video or pause the video while they view a description of the product and then give them the option of adding.
  • First-person, game-like narrative experiences: as though playing a first-person video game, audiences can work through an interactive story or mystery, uncovering relevant Easter eggs associated with the brand.
  • Informative mapped narratives: similar to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” in terms of format, but different content-wise, informative mapped narratives allow users to select which content is relevant to them as they progress through an informational video.
  • Choose Your Own Adventure: as the linked example notes, Netflix is planning a Choose Your Own Adventure Black Mirror episode. Similar to the way the old CYOA novels used to be written, viewers will get to interact with the video to determine how the story twists, turns, and ends.

In addition to possibly improving the user experience and allowing them more choices, brands can track how audiences engage with the video – what they click on, when they click on it, etc. They can then create better, more stylized interactive narrative video and better products.

That sounds awesome. So… why wouldn’t we want to use interactive narrative video?

In a nutshell, narrative video, as a medium, engages by immersing viewers in content. When we have to stop and make decisions about the narrative or the outer-lying content of the narrative – are we really engaged with the video anymore? Or is this another distraction?



Our people had some thoughts on this:

Frankly, a lot of the interactive videos I've seen have felt like they were created by [marketers] looking for "superglue" to boost time on site or “video view” numbers to report back on the great "engagement."

Not to say it can't be a useful and entertaining format, but when you approach content production with such a nakedly insincere motivation, you should expect to fall short. – Henry Martin

I tend not to like the "linear with hotspots" model because I think it presents a messy interface and breaks the "world" of the video you're watching. But it's hard to deny the usefulness of giving an interested viewer retail links and further information so they don't have to navigate away from your content. Personalized video strikes me as more elegant, but there's a certain dystopian quality to it. – Tim Herr

In 2006, I was fully convinced that interactive video was the future, but I was wrong. I don't believe interactive storytelling has a future for mass adoption for now. When we watch a video, we want to shut off. We want to escape. We want to enter a world deeper and deeper led by someone else. We don't want to make decisions – we made enough already at work. Take these 10 hours and dazzle me, confuse me, interest me, but the only decision I want to make is clicking to the next episode. – Jesse Greenberg

Moreover, with the big Choose Your Own Adventure news from Netflix, we wondered whether this particular narrative interactive video genre made any sense to produce:

Filming alternate storylines, as the article alludes to, is expensive, complicated and probably cumbersome – I'd think it's a production nightmare. And allowing for major plot variations is far different than filming a few thousand gestures and stand-on-your-head-like acrobatics for Burger King’s Subservient Chicken.

But there’s a bigger concern I have with this kind of storyline control or what I might term viewer-creative-usurpation. It has the potential to remove the surprise.

How many people watching Romeo & Juliet for the first time would have selected the storyline path for the two young lovers to die? "No, no, no, he's not dead. It's just a temporary thing the apothecary gave him! Stop! [Looking down at controller] How do I make this thing go back?? Where's the REVERT TO PREVIOUS DECISION button?" – Carl Warner

Giving the audience control over a story amounts to the murder of the story. To expand on Carl's point about Romeo and Juliet, the entire power of stories is in their ability to force us to see the world from the storyteller's point of view.

Giving the audience choices as to how a story should play out removes the entire point. Even in the case that they chose the path the storyteller would have chosen, it's a completely different experience. – Henry Martin

I remember the different forms of this in the past where the storytelling process took on a "game" type feel, but left the viewer feeling like they missed out if they didn't choose the right "path". As an engagement technique, I think this is fun, but from a storytelling perspective, I'm not ready to buy in just yet. Maybe I just want to hear the story as it was intended to be told as opposed to adjusting it to fit the particular mood I'm in at the time. – Grant Spofford

But if Netflix is jumping off the bridge, I want to do it, too!

We’re not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t – only that you should pay attention to which bridge Netflix is jumping off of. They are not rolling out an interactive feature that is going to be applied to all of their video content, they are producing select episodes or videos that especially lend themselves to these formats.

Our people also discussed ways that interactive video content could work for them:

At the risk of sounding geeky, I'll admit that I spend too much time playing video games. CYOA is a common feature in games – but you typically choose your adventure by the choices you make in the game: Are you merciless or merciful? Whose lives do you choose to save?

I often find that I end up re-playing these games just to see what the alternate storyline is. I remember doing that with old fashioned Choose Your Own Adventure books* too. Maybe Netflix will get that bump in viewership from all the people that want to see every possible outcome. – Tuck Oden

I think we can find more potential in video games becoming more like TV. Video games already have the capability to alter visual story elements programmatically without having to film distinctly different scenes. We've also seen a number of recent "prestige" games that offer deeply branching storylines (Heavy Rain, Life Is Strange) for what I presume is a significantly lower cost of production. Finally, video games are already adopting episodic and even season-based release cycles (the Walking Dead series by Telltale Games, for instance) that mirror the way that TV is released. – Tim Herr

I do think [interactive video] has its place. For instance, you could watch models posing and wearing an outfit to understand how the fabric drapes/wears. That's a thumbs up. Maybe instead of "CLICK TO BUY" if you mouse over (if someone is insisting we do it during the duration of the video) it highlights the product in question with an outbound link? – Alexandra Bohannon

I agree with the comments that we want to just sit back and be entertained nine days out of ten, but I think it could be worth it, if someone finds cool ways to use this medium, to make the tenth day something really awesome. But I think it should be deliberate and that the message and audience should be best served with interactive video content for that specific endeavor.

Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.” A better statement would have been “the medium influences the message.” And when you choose a medium, you need to be sure it is the right one. – Ryan Winkler Herr

Ultimately, we think interactive narrative video content should be considered only with the following caveats:

  • Don’t create this content for the sake of creating this content. Unless this medium is used to enhance a specific experience, it does not necessarily improve upon the viewers’ engagement and may even detract from it.
  • Have a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish and tailor the experience accordingly. If you want to know what products viewers like, track their hot spot clicking data. If you want people to engage with your brand with a game-like challenge, make sure playing the game gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride in your brand.
  • Be sure the cost matches the benefits. Choose Your Own Adventure, for example, requires filming essentially multiple videos for the end result of one piece of content. One very expensive piece of content. Make sure you have that cost covered so the quality does not suffer in the process.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of non-interactive video. Great storytelling doesn’t need all the bells and whistles. As our own Carl Warner said: “That's true interactive viewing because you've grabbed me by the lapels and made me a part of your world for 120 minutes.” Adding clickable overlay doesn’t change that experience the same way that a DVD skip button did the VHS rewind function. This is more like eating a steak with or without A1 Sauce.
Get YDP in your email as soon as it's published.