Videos: Show or tell?

Video is great when it's the right medium for your message, but it shouldn't be used as a desperate measure when your other content is failing.


Companies struggling to produce readable, engaging content sometimes come up with what they see as an instant fix – video, and plenty of it.

People love video – YouTube proves it – but context is everything. Just because someone enjoys watching a cat play the piano doesn't mean they want to watch a video on filling in a form, or see a product manager explain his or her latest widget.

What’s great about video?

  • It’s good for SEO, increasing click-throughs and visitor time spent on sites
  • It’s good for demonstrating certain practical tasks – showing can work better than telling when it comes to things like hanging curtains, opening an uncooperative washing machine door or fixing a car.
  • Video can be fantastic for opinion pieces and interviews. We were recently shown a company health and safety video where people described the devastating effects of accidents at work. Powerful stuff.

What’s not so great about video?

  • It’s not scannable – and so lacking one of the definitive attributes of good online copy. Even with chapters, you can’t instantly find or glance back to the precise bit you want. Watching a video is high on effort. You need headphones if you’re sharing your space, and you need to give it your full attention.
  • Video isn’t the best medium for users with a short attention span (ie everybody). A bit of buffering and you may lose your user.
  • Do your users enjoy a sneaky surf at work? Then video isn’t always great, unless they can use headphones unobtrusively.
  • Video isn’t accessible if you don’t have captioning and audio description.

How to make video work for you

  • Decide whether video really is the best medium for your message. Is what you have to say something people will want to watch? Or could they get the information faster if they read it?
  • Let people know how much time they’ll need to invest in watching your video – always show how long it lasts.
  • Use a searchable, intuitive title and a summary to optimise for search and make clear what your video contains.
  • Use chapters to allow users to go straight to the information they want.
  • Provide a transcript for people who don’t want to watch the video.