Video vs Text: The Brain Perspective
By Liraz Margalit, Ph.D.
Watching a video and reading an article activate separate cognitive functions
They say video killed the radio star. The question is: Did it also kill the print star? And what does the answer mean for online content marketing?
Whether it’s YouTube, Vine or integrated content, video has quickly become one of the most impactful ways to speak to an audience. According to a recent study by Usurv, if you want visitors to your site to share and interact with your content, delivering it via video is the best way to go. Consumers are 39 percent more likely to share content if it’s delivered via video, and 36 percent more likely to comment and 56 percent more likely to give that video a coveted “like.”
But it’s not time to bury print just yet. Watching a video and reading a print article require completely separate cognitive functions, and for businesses, it’s important to understand the differences before you make a decision to use a video clip instead of print content.
Numbers don’t lie
Internet users do love video. The average consumer with an Internet connection watches roughly 206 videos per month, and Nielsen claims 64 percent of marketers expect video to dominate their strategies in the near future. Taking a look at the numbers, it seems like a no-brainer to say that video content is more engaging than text. But tapping into a little basic psychology, we can further break down these findings, and also describe the conditions that will drive visitors to prefer text.
Different types of cognitive tasks
Videos are processed by the brain 60,000 times faster than text. Think about the heavy lifting your cognitive system has to do when reading an article vs. watching a video clip! Humans are hardwired to avoid demanding cognitive strain, so this tendency toward “laziness” will, more often than not, invite us to choose information that is easy to process over the form that makes us put out a lot of effort.
Reading articles and watching videos also require two different brain processes. When we read, the process requires us to be actively involved. The brain gets a much better workout when reading vs. watching, and the process requires a longer attention span and deeper cognitive efforts.
Reading is active. When we read an article, we don’t just look at the words in front of us — we create thoughts about that content, activating our mental structures. Reading requires the production of “inner voice,” which dials up our attention span. That means that careful reading is not an automatic process, but rather occurs when we actively process what we are reading.
Watching a video, though, is passive. It’s much less demanding and more of an automatic process, asking a lot less energy and effort on behalf of the person watching.
If you want them to fall in love, send them a video
Videos are also much better at seduction.
When we read something, we are actively involved in processing the information in front us. Our cognitive processors are working hard. But while reading is all about thinking, video is better at getting us to feel.
When we watch a video, we become immersed in it and create an empathetic connection with the screen. If you want your visitors to fall in love with your content, it makes sense to deliver it via video. That’s because it’s much easier for us to become emotionally attached to something we watch in a video than something we read in an article.
Emotions are mediated by automatic physiological (motor-sensorial) reactions, which can be explained through a process called mirror-neuron mechanism. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires not just when we ourselves perform an action, but also when we watch someone else perform that same action. Our brains mirror what’s unfolding before us as if we were part of the scene, even if we are just sitting passively on the sidelines.
So when it comes to mirror neurons, there is no difference between the cinema and real life. This suggests that we could actually be experiencing (in small but significant ways) the pain (and supposedly also the pleasures) of those we witness on screen. This neurological activity makes the spectator much more emotionally involved.
Why video is not always the best strategy
But despite all of the advantages of video, visitors don’t always prefer it. There are a number of factors at play when it comes to how consumers choose to receive their content, and they unconsciously influence the visitor’s decision-making process throughout his or her entire interaction with the website.
At ClickTale, we wanted to know more about how and why visitors choose to receive their content, so we ran an analysis on one of the world’s most popular news websites. Our analysis revealed that visitors are strongly influenced by previous habits — if they chose text over video one time, they are significantly more likely to continue to do so again. The exact same trend was seen for those who opted for video. And more so, visitors rarely opted to choose content via two different mediums, so if information was offered via both video and text, they tended to consume only one of the versions and skip the second.
How can we explain the tendency to consume only one form of content?
When we make the decision to click on a video over a text article, it might feel like a clear choice. But the truth is, there are several unconscious factors at work, influencing the visitors’ decision-making process without him or her even realizing it. These factors include the visitor’s state of mind at any given moment, the type of product or service he or she is looking for and his or her overall personality.
I’m in a video state of mind
In my work as a web psychologist, I’ve witnessed two distinctive patterns of behavior that separate users into two kinds of groups: Goal-oriented visitors and unintentional visitors.
Visitors who are in a “browsing” state of mind will pass through a website just to see what’s on offer. Their goal is more to be entertained. This visitor takes in information passively, relying on limited cognitive resources and allowing the website to guide him or her through his interaction. Due to emotion-based processing, this visitor will pay attention to colorful images, embedded video, attractive headlines and catchy slogans. Visitors in a browsing state of mind will tend to prefer video over text.
But then there are visitors who are goal-oriented, who come to your website with a specific need or cause in mind. These visitors are much more willing to use up cognitive resources, and we see that they are more active on the page. They know exactly what they are looking for, be it to read certain content, purchase a specific product or get an update on the latest news. These videos are far more likely to choose text over video when given a choice between the two.
Sense of control
When watching a video, we unconsciously let go our perception of absolute control over our environment. Engaging with a movie is a form of escape. Watching a movie can facilitate feelings of dissociation (an experience of having one’s attention and emotions detached from the environment) and can offer mental escapism.
Not all personality types are comfortable giving up their sense of control. Some people need to feel that they remain in the drivers’ seat, so to speak, when they interact with a website. These people will prefer text, because it allows them to skim over portions that interest them less, move backwards to re-read those passages that interest them more, and overall allow for them to set the pace of the interaction.
The product matters
A crucial question for businesses to ask before deciding to deliver their content via video or text is: What is the product that we provide?
Research shows that when website visitors must make an important or consequential decision — such as purchasing insurance or financial products, for example — their more rational, detail-oriented modes are activated and they want to feel in control. In this case, text will provide businesses with a better outcome than video.
But when the consequences of visitors’ interactions are not as meaningful, video will more often than not be the preferred mode of interaction.
Visitors tend to consider video more engaging on the whole because it requires less cognitive strain and humans are hard-wired to avoid heavy work and favor cognitive ease — therefore, it’s a more popular method for delivering information.
But video is not a failsafe. There are several factors at play when visitors select the form of their content, including their current state of mind, the type of product being searched for and their personality. These factors all work to unconsciously influence the visitor’s decision-making process throughout his or her entire interaction with the website, and drive him or her to prefer one form of content that best serves his momentary needs.
Consider these factors when deciding which format of content your audience will respond to best.