When was the last time you saw an awesome online or social video ad? Did it impress you so much that you thought about buying the product or recommend it to someone? These days, a list of truly memorable video ads are few and far between.
Today’s guest is Matt Johnston with Guide Social, an agency that creates ads for all kinds of brands and products. Using and understanding the HERO System makes for memorable video ads that resonate.
“The biggest mistake that people make is that they focus way too much on features and their product and things like that rather than focusing on the avatar and empathy and trying to connect with that person and tying it back to their pain.”
“The reason that someone will buy something from you or sign up to be a lead in your company is - it has everything to do with their own selfish needs and desires.”
“If you want to move them to act, you need to emotionally resonate with them.”
“Nobody cares about what you sell. They care about opportunities that are available to them to solve their problems.”
Understanding the HERO System to Create Better Video Ads With @ByMattJ
Ben: Hey, Matt, how's it going out in Allentown?
Matt: It's good. We don't have any snow yet. Just leaves still, so it's an extended fall, 30 degrees fall. But you're up in North Dakota, so I don't want to talk to you about the cold.
Ben: Yeah. We've made it two days into December without really having too much snow or super frigid temperatures. But I know it's coming, it's going to hit us fast, and it's going to stay for the next four months. I'll take every mildly pleasant day that we can get. It was like 41 here yesterday and we're like—
Matt: Wow, it's like summer. Summer in North Dakota, get out the grill.
Ben: Yeah. That's a whole other topic, but cold does not always prevent us from grilling. I will say that.
Ben: Yeah, and why should it, really? Cool. What we're going to be talking about, it's two different concepts here as I understand it. The HERO system and the four R’s, and we're going to talk about how you apply these things to make better video ads. It's pretty straightforward.
This will be educational for me because I've never heard of either of these things before. Hopefully this will be a good conversation for our audience as well. First, before we really get into the nuts and bolts of things, the first thing I want to ask is, what are some common causes for why video ads fall flat or underperform? When they miss the mark and when they don't resonate with their audience, what are some things that tend to be the underlying causes for those ads just not being that good?
Matt: There are a few things. I think one obvious thing is that most people are producing these themselves without a whole lot of education or even desire to produce them. They're half done and half baked. They end up being sort of whatever. There's a ton of services out there now that allow you to create video ads very quickly and easily just from a purely technical standpoint.
I'm sort of a big defender that it's not the technical stuff at all. It's the writing, the marketing, and the editorial. Honestly, from a master point of view or a top-down point of view, I think that the biggest mistake that people make is that they focus way too much on features, their product, and things like that rather than focusing on the avatar, empathy, and trying to connect with that person and tying it back to their pain.
Because the reason that someone will buy something from you or sign up to be a lead in your company is it has everything to do with their own selfish needs and desires, and the needs and desires of their business, I suppose, but those are deeply tied to their own emotion.
If you want to move them to act, you need to emotionally resonate with them. You really need to empathize with them, speak to them, talk to them, and help them see their pain points before you start going into what it is that you sell even. That's the biggest problem that I see. It's kind of like, oh, let's put up a video ad for 10, 15 seconds. We'll just throw on some USPs.
So it'd be like, oh, it does this, it does this, it does this, and it does this. Isn't that enough to want to buy it? It's much more complicated than that from a psychological perspective. I think you have to respect that and focus more on strategy, tactics, and writing in editorial over simple execution.
Ben: Sure, yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. If you don't have a good foundation for your ad, you don't have a good message, you don't have a compelling hook, and those kinds of very basic things, the greatest production in the world is not going to save that ad, so I think that makes a lot of sense. What is the HERO system then and how does that work in the context of video advertising?
Matt: It's a system that I've created over the years to create social video that can get traction, basically. It's sort of a checklist that people can follow so that you can easily make content that will speak to people on social. The four R’s little methodology that I created speaks much more to scripting video ads specifically.
The HERO system is what my whole book is about. It stands for—it's an acronym as you may imagine—hook, empathy, response, and overdeliver. Hook is ideally pulling them in the first few seconds, either with visuals, a headline, or something that grabs their attention, and leading with empathy. That's what the E is, it's for empathy. Obviously, never lead with a logo or something like that.
Be very, very intentional about what you're putting in those first few seconds because that's really the only shot that you have if we're talking about a news feed algorithm-based video ad, which is pretty much everything except for TV commercials and OTT platforms. So pretty much everything, including YouTube ads, needs to have that very specific hook that grabs people.
I don't like making it a bait and switch. Some people like doing that where they'll just like, how do we hit them over the head or should we just—here's the lazy thing that you see sometimes when people just say stop scrolling. It's the laziest thing, but you do see that. The idea is that you just need to pull people in.
E is empathy. My book is called Producing Empathy. I believe that everyone that clicks on anything or buys anything online is doing it because of an empathetic resonance that's happening between the content that they're seeing and themselves, whether it's conscious or very often subconscious. The first exercise that you always need to do when you're going to create any content, including ads for your brand, is really think hard about what makes people tick, what the main pain points are, and what keeps them up at night, what their lives are like, and then you need to craft specific messaging that makes them see themselves in the content. They want to see a mirror.
The R is response. That's actually making sure that they do something with that content rather than passively viewing it. And O is overdeliver. From an ad standpoint, that can mean everything from some sort of comedy to being able to stand out, it can be over-deliver an information, or whatever it might be. But you need to over-deliver in the feed to stand out. So that's the HERO system. It was sort of built for organic social video, but it 100% applies to video ads as well as a nice little base.
Ben: Sure, yeah. It makes a lot of sense. In addition to the HERO system, I love how clear and concrete that acronym makes things. What are the four R’s and how does that framework factor into this conversation?
Matt: That's really a methodology to help people work through what a script might be like that would take people through this system of really mirroring the customer journey and turning it into a video ad because that's where the empathy comes in. The best way to explain it is this core. Because I've run Guide Social and we do video ads, and the core thing that we create for people are these videos that we call centerpiece videos and actor-driven video where we script out this face the camera video that we put out there. It's usually a minute and a half long or something like that.
It's meant to mirror the customer journey. No pun intended, the hero of the story is a former customer, not a real one, but it's scripted. The protagonist is someone who has basically gone through the pain discovery and then relief of the pain experience. They've gone through that customer journey. So then people can sort of empathize with that content and then see themselves making that same journey themselves.
The four R’s help you script. I think of them like four signposts in that path on the way to creating your video script that tells the right story. The first one is relate. You want to lead right off the bat with something that relates to the audience, so the avatar, and the pain that they feel. It's usually some sort of pain statement like I didn't think X would ever end. The worst thing that happens to me every day is I wake up and X, Y, Z. Those are things where a good audience member who was going to end up turning into a customer would resonate with them and be like, oh, yeah, me too.
The second is rile, and that is where you churn up the emotional issues associated with it. There's this sort of thing that happens that you resonate with and then you sort of rile them up, and this is sort of like it frustrated me because of X, Y, Z. I can just talk you through an example in a second to make it clear.
Reveal obviously reveals the product as a new opportunity and a chance to I came across this and could this actually solve my problems? Then release is it closes the book on the riling up of those emotions. You feel released from the pain that you've felt doing that. We've made dozens and dozens and dozens of these.
A good one that I like to talk about is with a client of ours called Hydroviv. They were on Shark Tank and we made a video like this for them. The basic USPs of this product is it's an under sink water filter that takes 15 minutes to install. There's no drilling or anything. You just plug it into both sides and it's customized. It was founded by a Ph.D. chemist, and it's customized for the water in your zip code because everybody's water supply is different. It's a great product. It's been really super successful.
What they told me when I was chatting with them about their brand was that they told me that a lot of people, the idea of their water supply was not necessarily on their radar until they watched the news or something and they were like, oh, there's lead in my water. We wrote a script around that journey. We did a male and female version, but she started off like listen, I never even thought about my water filter. I just thought the way I was filtering by water was fine. So we start there and everybody feels like that.
They don't really think about that that much. It's like, I got a Brita, I'm good. It turns out you're not, but it's like I got a Brita, I'm good. Then we rile it with that inciting incident of, but then I watched the news and I found out there was all this terrible stuff in my water like lead and everything like that. I'm worried about my kids. Are they safe? What's going to happen? There's the emotional; there's the rile of it.
I was watching TV one night and I saw this product on Shark Tank. It was kind of amazingly matched to exactly the news story I saw last night. I got really interested because it seems like it could solve my problem. Then the releases, I got it. I have to tell you because it has to be emotional here, I feel so much better and so much more comfortable. I feel like I'm protecting my family. I feel like we're safe now. That's the release. That's how the four R’s work to create a video script.
Ben: Creativity is essential for great advertising, but creativity is also talked about as being something that just spontaneously happens almost like it's magic. The reality is that when you apply some form of process to your creativity or set some sort of constraint, it actually becomes easier to generate more creative ideas that work better in the real world with less stress and with less effort. It sounds counterintuitive, but I think the processes that Matt shares during this conversation are proof that this is true. Now, back to Matt.
We're talking about two different processes here, two different concepts. Does it make more sense? If you want to get started applying these things to the way that you create ads, does it make more sense to start with one process versus the other? Are these things that you could reasonably start trying to apply simultaneously?
Just assuming a marketer is beginning from a cold start. They've just been creating ads maybe with no real process of any sort in place, potentially, how would you recommend that they get started with this stuff?
Matt: I think that the HERO system I would look at is more of a checklist, whereas the four R’s is more of a process. I think that the first thing that every marketer needs to do is actually do their avatar work. Because we'll talk to clients about it, marketers, and then we won't do it. You got to do it. You have to actually think about what is the core and just articulate it.
There's an exercise in my book called the persona exercise. You can just do that. You put a name to a face, create an avatar. Who is this person? What makes them tick? What are the pain points, problems, and all those things?
You want to then start from that place. Then once you do that work, you realize you will have started from a problem-ish place and an emotional resonance type place rather than a product-focused place because nobody cares about what you sell. They care about the opportunities that are available to them to solve their problems.
All business exists to solve problems. There's a gap in the marketplace, whether it's there needs to be a better version of something or there needs to be just something created to fix a problem that there isn't a way to do it now. All business exists to solve problems, and so we need to focus more on the problem.
From a purely technical point of view, you could apply the four R’s to all sorts of things. One, you could do what I do. Clients hire us to get actors and do—I wouldn't say super expensive, big budget. We do it pretty frugally, but it's still very well shot and everything. We hire an actor, we write the script, we direct it, and everything like that.
You could do it yourself. You could hire an actor, you could have somebody on your team do it, or something like that. You could write through a very specific example like that and shoot it yourself on your phone or something like that. Ultimately, I'm a big believer, and this is the big theme of my book—video shouldn't be so intimidating from a technical aspect.
You can do it. The tools are there. You just need to focus more on the writing and the marketing 101 of it, and less on the video is scary, et cetera. I think the best way to start with it is to do the avatar homework, figure out what the problems are that are being solved and how that makes the avatar feel, and then you can apply relate, rile, reveal, and release to every video ad you do.
It could be a text on screen video ad you make with stock footage that immediately grabs people in. It relates to them, it riles the emotion of the core problem, it reveals the opportunity, and then it releases it and talks about how it makes people feel. You could do it in a video like we do with an actor. You could potentially, I guess, put your CEO on camera and have them talk through this.
One of the things that does work about having the actor or the other person is that there is that third party feel of it. You're always going to believe somebody else telling you something's amazing more than the person who made it being like my thing is amazing. It's better to hear it. So that's why we make the customer the hero of the story.
You can also apply this to testimonial videos. When you're going through and coaching people, do your testimonial videos on Zoom so that you can coach them through it, and then get the answers to these very specific questions that will help you craft a video when you do quick cuts to it that relates, then riles, reveals, and then releases. You can just coach them through that because they are the customer. They did go through that process.
You can apply it to any number of video ads. Certainly, I'm not saying that there's not a place for content that is more feature benefit-focused and less avatary-focused. There probably is, but it's way down the funnel.
When you're talking to people that have very little brand awareness or they're not super interested in anything yet like they don't know you, you've got to take them through this process. It's the most important video ad that you make. Everything else is just meant to push them over the edge. If that's a feature-driven video, great. You can whip together a feature-driven video, but this is the most important type.
Ben: Sure, yeah. It makes a lot of sense. Once marketers start applying both the HERO system and the four R’s to their video ad creation process or whatever you want to call it, what are the kinds of results that they can expect to drive? Reasonably, what kind of an impact are these checklists and process-driven changes likely to make to the quality of their ads and the results that those ads produce?
Matt: That's a tough question to answer because there's a lot of stuff involved in media buying. If you're doing a poor job at media buying, the best creative won't save you. However, the creative is the most important thing. With everything going on with iOS 14, privacy in general, and the death of cookies, Facebook, Instagram, and all of the social networks don't have the data to be able to target the content as well.
The creative kind of self targets a lot because when you're immediately relating with people's problems right off the top of a video ad, you're pulling in the right person, so that continues to send messages to the algorithms about what kind of people are engaging with this content. Then it can better target that content because it's getting rough now.
Many of the videos we've made using this exact format have made millions and millions of dollars for clients. It's obviously quite dependent, but there's really nowhere to go but up though because if you're not doing this, you're probably doing one of two things. One, you're running just a lot of image ads and nothing else. That puts a lot of pressure on your funnel, your sales page, or your product page because they're just clicking.
The ad doesn't do any selling at all. They're just clicking and then it puts all the weight on the website to do the lifting of taking them through to a conversion. So you should see increased conversion rates because people are coming to the website, product pages, and sales pages warmer, so that's great.
The other thing is just that it just creates this affinity. It has this weird PR effect. A lot of the ads that we do are kind of funny, so that humor helps. But I also think that even if it's not humor-driven, just using that empathy that drives through the ad really helps people like your brand more. It can lift your brand awareness as well, so you're going to see more people google you and you're going to get that extra halo effect when you create ads like this.
You should see, generally, your ROI on cold traffic going up because instead of giving people just feature, feature, feature type ads, and image ads, you're taking them through the entire process emotionally and logically of why the product exists, why it's built for you specifically, and what it should make them do, which is a roundabout way to answer your question, but I think it'll help.
Ben: Yeah. I don't think that's too much of a roundabout answer. You can't promise like, oh, if you do this, you're going to see a 574% lift. You couldn't get that granular, but I think if you had to talk or explain this to a stakeholder like a boss or a client like, we're going to make the specific changes to how we do things—
Matt: Yeah, I should have answered that for sure.
Ben: I think maybe that's probably how I should have framed the question though, but that's why I asked because marketers get asked all the time about things like that. It can be challenging to explain accurately what the measurement processes actually going to look like or what you can reasonably attribute to anything without sounding like you're just blowing smoke a little bit. I think you answered the question really.
The last question I'll throw your way. Are there any brands out there whose video ads on social that they're just nailing it, that you think are just doing an awesome job of just doing social video ads really well that listeners should maybe go check out? I should say, it's okay to mention your own clients. If you want to plug your own clients here, really, what I'm looking for is just to give listeners somewhere just to point them in the direction of some brands that they could go look at just so they have like a visual example of maybe some sort of standard that they can try to live up to or something they can try to emulate with their own work.
Matt: Yeah, it's a tough one. Most people suck at this, honestly. I don't see a lot of good stuff at all. I think that some of what we do, I wouldn't say it's modeled after, but they're definitely inspired by, in some ways, what the Harmon Brothers have done over the years. Now, those are different. It's going to cost you six figures and up to make those videos. That's like Squatty Potty and all that type of stuff. They're a very similar business to ours like making video ads.
It's great to look at how they use humor and mix it with marketing psychology to be able to create ads that are very cold audience-directed. It's always good to look at those with a critical eye because they are funny. It's fun to look at them with a critical eye and say, why might this actually sell stuff? I love those guys. They're great. They do awesome stuff.
I think a lot of what we were doing when we created this, we tested these formats and everything and they did end up being funny. They take people through the process, but they're never really wacky. They're sort of more intelligently funny. We also wanted to find a way to do it much cheaper without sacrificing quality. I think we were able to achieve that.
There are so many brands on our website that have done good stuff. I think Hydroviv has definitely made at least $6 million off of that video that I just described. We have some other good folks that have done some great content with it. I can't think of any off the top of my head that are doing it that have not worked with us, Harmon Brothers, or somebody else.
Nobody's really killing it who's trying to do it themselves that I can really think of. But yeah, a couple of the good ones if you went on our website—William Painter, I know, has had a lot of success with their type of video and a few of our other Shark Tank clients as well. But yeah, that's always a tough one for me.
I also don't monitor other people's ads like crazy either, to be honest with you. There's just so much going on. If you buy one of these platforms that are doing this that shows you who's spending all this on ads, you'll look at it, it's just overwhelming. You never see any of them because you're not targeted by them. But yeah, from a purely cold to sold process, those are my best recommendations to be inspired.
I think it takes a lot of guts for people to tell stories. I've just learned this. It takes a lot of guts for people to take the time and spend the money in advertising to tell stories and speak to their avatar's pain points rather than talking about their features and benefits. People just, for some reason, really just want to talk about their product because I feel like that's it. Shouldn't you understand what it does? But I just don't see that very often.
I will say that I'm constantly approached by people who just know that their stuff is crap and they don't know what to do. It is kind of tough. That's the best I can do.
Ben: Sure. I think that's a great answer, honestly, because to be honest, I guess maybe from time to time, I've maybe seen some ads. I've been like, oh, that's clever or that was really good. I can't think of any brands though. Just when I think about it, there are none that come to mind that I think consistently are good, where like, oh, I'm really glad that you interrupted my YouTube video with this 30-second thing. For myself, the experience is pretty consistent like I am just skipping that ad as soon as it'll let me.
Matt: Right. It would be great to not do that. I feel like the holy grail in advertising is to get that crowd of people that watch the Super Bowl for the commercials. How can you do that? But of course, nobody's putting the energy and effort into entertaining people in ads very much.
We do. We definitely do, but I just don't see it very much across the board. It's the culture of internet marketing. It came from this click funnel, the Russell Brunsony place of you're one funnel away from becoming a millionaire, and so everything's a quick fix. It's like can't we just get everything fast, throw up an ad, make the ROI, reinvest in the business, make more money, and grow, grow, grow, grow, grow?
There's almost an unbrainwashing that you have to do to get people to think about returning to all the things that have made TV advertising successful for 60, 70 years, which is what we're trying to do is to take all those principles and apply them in a way that is much more digital-friendly. We're starting to now look, in 2022, to do more like OTT advertising like Hulu and stuff like that, and saying how we can apply our formats to those because TV is moving to both social media and that, and so how can we help that as well and what kind of videos do people want to watch there? But once again, they're going to want to be entertained. I think entertaining is a really undervalued thing in ads.
Ben: Yeah, for sure. This has been an awesome conversation. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Matt: Thanks for having me, dude.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. If people want to find you or your agency online, where are the best places for them to go?
Matt: Yeah. If you guys want to go to guidesocialglobal.com/podcast, I've got a great little gift for you there, and then you'll be on the website too and you can see everything else that we do.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.