Creating Social Media Videos That Capture Audience Attention in Seconds

Understanding the brain’s filtering process is key to creating engaging videos.

A video producer edits video in his office.

Preparing to produce a video for social media is an emotionally daunting task. It’s like high school all over again, when you tried to find the right outfit to catch your crush’s eye. A lot of thought went into every piece of clothing, but their eyes still glazed over you as you passed them in the hallway. Pointless. 

Perhaps it’s not as tormenting as teenage angst but it’s comparable. We pour our hearts, minds, and time into a video, only to have it slide past disengaged eyes with the swipe of a thumb. So how do you grab your audience’s attention in a matter of seconds? Well, back to the teenage analogy; your best outfit may not be the heart of who you are, but it will get your crush to notice and eventually discover your essence. 

The brain’s priorities

The physiological process of grabbing someone’s attention is complex. Our brains have a Reticular Activating System (RAS), an impressive filter that prevents us from getting overwhelmed with the absurd amount of information and stimuli bombarding our senses every day. This filter brings to your awareness only the most information for immediate needs. Research has shown that the brain seeks patterns and pleasure and prioritizes novel stimuli.  

Let’s break down patterns, pleasure, and novelty. When it comes to patterns, the brain chooses information that aligns with established beliefs (15). It picks and chooses evidence to support our understanding of reality. With pleasure, we hang onto things that promise a possibility of reward and gratification. This expectation of pleasure motivates our attention and effort. Finally, our brains prioritize novel stimuli, or new information. 

So how does this translate into how you strategize the start of your video? This filter can inform the first few seconds of your video. The average attention span is only eight seconds long. Articles on this topic suggest hooking viewers somewhere between 3-5 seconds.  

Let’s explore some of the most common themes from experts and online resources discussing ways to open your video, all of which relate to novelty, patterns, and pleasure. As a quick note, the following advice is primarily visual strategy. Unfortunately, a majority of social media videos are watched without sound. Thus, always use animated captions or overlay subtitles for interviews. Sites like Facebook offer auto-generated captions. 


Novelty involves surprise, shock, bewilderment, and curiosity. Whether it’s communicated visually or through dialogue (in the form of graphics/subtitles), seek to provide a creative, experimental, or surprising perspective. It can be a strange camera angle, a hard-hitting, did-you-know-factoid, or a thought-provoking quote. For instance, drone shots draw us in because it provides new, exciting ways to enjoy landscapes that we take for granted. 

Don’t be afraid to experiment with special effects or animation, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want it to feel forced or too marketed. Animations and effects always need to have a storytelling intention and purpose.  

Finally, novelty keeps people hooked. Each scene in your video, like an addicting Netflix show, presents new information and an even deeper desire to want to know more. There’s a degree of novelty every few seconds to keep folks engaged. 

Here’s an example of an experimental approach to editing by Nike.


Pleasure involves high arousal and positive emotions that come with psychological rewards. Some rewards come as instant gratification, like a video of kittens or bubbling cheese.  Others come towards the end of the video. You either have to provide instant gratification up front, or instantly allude to a reward for your audience at the end. The latter is a bit trickier to figure out.   This video by Tasty is gratifying drool fest the whole way through.

If the psychological reward is at the end, create a sense of tension and curiosity right off the bat. Establish a problem or pose a question within the first few seconds, then quickly point to how the video will provide the needed solutions or answers. As discussed before, the expectation of pleasure motivates people to put in the effort. Some of our favorite films start with suspense, but there’s always an expectation that these tensions will be resolved. If not, the audience will be upset.  This video has a slower build, but it starts with an intriguing question two seconds in, “Can Flavour Help You Find Love?”

If you’re going to tell a story, make sure to establish a desire that will make viewers want to hang on to find out what happens next. You’re going to reward them with a new insight, a solution, an answer, or an emotion.  If you’re not going to tell a story, entertain them right away with your most stimulating visuals, even if it’s not in chronological order. 

Finally, we’re empathetic creatures who intuitively feel for one another. Use people in your first shots. People are drawn to people. Human eyes stimulate an emotional reaction. Show their eyes. Personal stories will build a connection with the viewer and humanize your brand.  If you can’t include a person in your first few shots, add movement and motion. Zoom into a beautiful landscape, pan around an intriguing building, or revolve around a plate of cheeseburgers.  


Although breaks in patterns draws us in, we’re still creatures of habit. Our brains choose to select information to affirm deeply held beliefs. Going back to that high school crush analogy, if you’re very insecure about yourself, you’re only going to see the aspects about you that make you undesirable to your crush. 

This is where knowing your audience is essential. What are their beliefs and values? How do you embolden their pride in their beliefs, identities, and values? What conflicts with their values? Start your videos with affirmation or confliction. The main thing is, communicate with those values that run deep into their sense of identity and community. If their values are vague or broad, tap into universal values and themes, like belongingness, friendship, unity, or respect. 

Here’s a values-driven campaign by Starbucks that begins with conflict and resolves with affirmation.  It also promises a story in the beginning and uses universal values like respect and belongingness. 

Final thoughts

Every product and brand is unique. Some approaches will work for some, others won’t. It depends on your crush, or your audience. As a final takeaway, keep your message simple and refined from start to finish. Mismatched clothing is an eyesore. Make that outfit a cohesive piece. Be patient, one day they’ll take notice.