Humans have always found viewing the world horizontally as the most natural. Pretty obvious since we have horizontally set eyes and the earth is flat. But with vertical video now essential to any digital marketer or content creator, let’s look at the 100+ year history of video aspect ratios, from silent films to smartphones.

The history of video aspect ratios -1890s to 1990s

The visual format of videos has evolved over the years, but always with a wider horizontal ratio. The original silent film format from the late 1800s and early 1900s used a 4:3 ratio, which became the standard for TVs for around a century. With home TV sets becoming a common household item the 1950s, Hollywood pushed for a wider horizontal film format to re-spark interest in movie theatres. This led to years of movies being reformatted back to 4:3 or appearing VHS (which are tapes that play video, fyi). This would crop some of the left and right of the image, unless the video used black “letterbox” bars at the top and bottom.

This war between theatre and home video viewing came to a compromise in the mid-1990s with the invention of HDTV. HDTV introduced the 16:9 “widescreen” ratio, which was the middle ground between 4:3 and 2:35, the average of typical movie ratios. With widescreen TVs entering the market to match, this reduced or removed the black bars. Becoming the industry standard, it carried on through DVDs, Blu-Ray and now digital 4K. When watching older copies of movies or non-HDTV shows on a widescreen TV, you’ll notice black “pillar boxes” on both sides.

The introduction of vertical video – early 2010s

With the adoption of smartphones over the last decade, a new video format war has broken out. It originated as a result of the person filming with their phone held vertically – either from being lazy, forgetful or not having a moment to waste before a friend does something stupid or a cat does something cute.

Not filmed this way on purpose, these videos would lose context from the missing left and right parts or just be filmed poorly. This led to plenty of backlash and ridicule in the early 2010s.

Vertical video adoption – mid-2010s

Snapchat led both the consumer and commercial adoption of vertical video; owing to the app’s late 2011 launch, massive growth started in 2012. By the start of 2016, Snapchat was hitting 10 billion daily video views. Periscope, a live video streaming app that was bought by Twitter prior to launch in 2015, also drove vertical video adoption.

“I see vertical video as the future of mobile video. We have seen 15 to 25 % higher click-to-play on vertical video.” Salah Zalatimo, head of product and tech at Forbes.

Now people were filming vertical videos on purpose. App users and content creators were drawn to the intimate and novel style, which let them communicate “face-to-face”. More importantly, vertical video fits the fact that people would much rather hold their phone vertically (94% of the time) than have to turn or hold their phone with two hands. It’s convenient to film from a phone one-handed, especially when filming yourself through the front camera, selfie-style.

Mainstream Competition – late 2010s


The last couple of years has seen the biggest players in social, search, and even music, adopt vertical video. Facebook has adopted and pushed vertical videos and ads for mobile over the last couple years.

Instagram vs Snapchat

In mid-2016, Instagram took a massive bite out of Snapchat with the introduction of their vertical video feature Stories. Instagram Stories now has over 300 million daily users, which is double Snapchat’s entire user base. RIP Snapchat.

Youtube vs Instagram

Previously when watching vertical videos on YouTube, they would have black “pillar bars” on either side to accommodate, similar to the situation with the letterbox for viewing movies on TV. In 2017, YouTube adopted vertical video, allowing it to be properly uploaded and viewed vertically on their mobile apps and desktop site. In June 2018, Instagram launched IGTV, allowing for long-form vertical video to strike back at YouTube’s step onto their territory.

Google Search to Google Stories

After testing with select publishers, Google will be rolling out their “AMP Stories” in 2018. Google AMP (accelerated mobile pages) lets websites or apps display search results or content faster and in more dynamic formats. AMP Stories will let publishers and advertisers include segmented vertical videos, similar to Snapchat and Instagram Stories, in Google search results.
google amp stories

Vertical Video Production and Marketing

  • A Media Brix study found that 70% of users don’t rotate their phone when served with a horizontal video ad – of that group, users watched only 14% of the ad. In contrast, vertically presented video ads were completed 90% of the time.
  • Snapchat found vertical videos ads had up to 2x higher visual attention and 9x completion rates, compared to horizontal video ads.

There’s a big difference between a video someone chose to watch and a video an advertiser wants them to watch. Catching attention spans these days needs to be instant, which vertical does thanks to filling a phone’s screen. Horizontal social media video ads need to accept (and be produced) knowing they most likely will be viewed smaller in a vertical feed. It’s not as simple as filming the same ad vertically or cropping a horizontal ad, it needs to be produced with vertical in mind. We achieve plenty of success with horizontal video ads on Facebook and Instagram, but well-executed vertical ads are fast becoming essential to any paid social media campaign.

An example of Instagram Stories, uploaded to fit Youtube’s vertical format:

For more social media marketing posts that include vertical video ads, check out:

IGTV: Marketing Tips for Instagram’s New Long-Form Vertical Video Content

KnowShow: Instagram Story Marketing for Events and Trade Shows

Hopscotch Festival: Why paid social media ads are event marketing essentials