This Valentine’s day, Facebook users were given a surprise wake-up call. Video would autoplay with sound on their timelines. For many this was an annoyance, others an intrusion and for the rest, an inevitable development in the ongoing discussion on the effectiveness or otherwise of the “sound-off” generation of consumers.

Marketers and creatives have long known that sound sells, but are now faced with the challenge of getting their message across in a user defined “soundless environment”.

Many big budget adverts would have been intended for a TV audience, but increasingly most consumers will first encounter them online, on mobile, and without sound. For many brands, this is a growing issue and poses the question

How do I engage consumers with soundless video?

Subtitling is one option, but many brands have been reluctant to subtitle, preferring instead to auto-play sound, or just hope that impactful and arresting visuals will do the trick. Understandably, marketers don’t want to compromise their creative work, while others may not even have considered that many users have their devices set to silent/ This poses a real problem, as the voice-over or moving backing track are critical elements in the overall impact of the ad to begin with.

Our research, conducted with Kantar Millward Brown, can now give a definitive answer to this problem and confirm that the best response to ‘sound-off viewing’ is to subtitle it. Confirming to marketers everywhere what they really already knew: if you want to engage people, talk to them.

Power to the consumer

Mobile video is growing in popularity and is increasingly gaining traction with planners, buyers and brands alike. The medium is quick, can be compelling and addresses the consumer appetite for rich media over static imagery. So how can brands square this most modern of mediums with a technology which pre-dates the ‘talkie’? It’s no surprise that many are a little unsure about using them, associating them with black and white films and Teletext.

Yet many mobile viewers are happy to watch content without listening to it. And while that’s fine for 11-second football clips, or videos of animals doing the craziest of things, for a visual that depends on an accompanying audio story to be understood, it’s a different matter.

Users set their devices to silent to avoid disturbing those around them. No one wants to be that person on a packed train whose accidental click causes a video to blast out at full volume causing more than a few eyebrows to be raised in quiet disapproval.

Adding subtitles allows users to experience the content they are viewing in full, wherever they are, even when their device is set to “sound-off”. In addition, by giving the individual control of their own experience it does not alienate the very audience it is trying to engage. Mobile users actively dislike not being asked for changes to their audio. This sentiment is reflected in surveys in two key markets – entertainment and FMCG – suggesting that control is highly important to most people, especially when using their phones. Anything overly disruptive (such as ads where the sound just starts playing) is likely to result in a swift click of the close button, and a potential customer lost to the campaign.

Importantly, it’s not just in user experience where research is showing subtitling to be an effective addition to mobile video marketing. It also helps planners and marketers hit their core campaign goals.

KPIs before captions

Overall, the research found that subtitled advertising just about outperformed non-subtitled across all focus areas for the companies tested. The advantages of subtitled content also emerged when the results were segmented by verticals and KPIs.

For example, some subtitled creative campaigns in the entertainment category managed a 9.9 percentage point uplift when the KPI was brand awareness, benchmarked against non-subtitled equivalents (with subtitled creative in entertainment experiencing an 18.8 percentage point brand awareness rise overall).

The report found similar results when the purpose of the campaign was to boost intent to purchase. In this instance, subtitled campaigns were twice as effective as those without captions, and one example had a 26 percentage point boost in intent to find more content. Subtitled campaigns which aimed to convey a key product feature, fared 12.1 percentage points better and helped 23 percentage points more people understand a manufacturer’s core message.

Clear messaging

For planners, hitting their KPIs is a clear benefit but it’s also important for creative teams. Several of the videos surveyed were film trailers heavily reliant on the humour to be understood. While one video, for a technology product, needed to communicate key messages and boost product features, imagery alone couldn’t have achieved any of these goals. So if there were no subtitles, the essential content of all videos would have fallen flat, wasting some high-cost creative work and advertising space.

The salient headline from this research suggests that far from being intrusive or distracting, subtitles are in fact crucial to the success of mobile video marketing across verticals. In addition, subtitles are also proving to be a viable solution to the need for “sound-off viewing”. All brands need to do now is act on this need by talking to their customers in a way they already understand. With text.


By Rob Cootes, director of video and programmatic at AdColony

GDPR Summit Series is a global series of GDPR events which will help marketers to prepare to meet the requirements of the GDPR ahead of May 2018 and beyond. Further information and conference details are available at

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