Set the Scene!

With human attention spans now bettered by the average goldfish (Microsoft), you have literally seconds to capture and engage your audience. Video backgrounds can help you.

Triggers for attention

To build really effective websites, conversion expert Peep Laja urges developers to design for the brain’s RAS or Reticular Activating System.

The RAS is the gatekeeper for our attention; it tells us what we have to look at, and what we can ignore. And video backgrounds can straightaway signal to the RAS that your page is important. How?

Motion: As the page loads, the immediate visual trigger is the movement in the image. Motion, especially unpredictable or ‘animate’ motion, has long been known to compel involuntary attention.

Content: Once the brain has registered the video imagery (fractions of a second), the video content can encourage your users to explore the page, along with its proposition and follow through to any planned conversion goals. Here too the RAS plays a key role. It’s curious and responds to novelty – your brain is drawn to anything that’s new or unexpected – and this need can be met within your video backgrounds through choice of imagery, camera angles or styling. The RAS is also triggered positively by emotion; and video is a terrific medium for evoking, portraying and sharing emotion.


The clue is in the description: ‘background’. Don’t let the video content compromise the primary aim of your page and its conversion goal. Video backgrounds are there to provide an intriguing context for the page and push your users to engage with its content by throwing up an idea, setting a mood, maybe hinting at the personality behind your pitch. The video content can be playful or profound, as long as it fits the tone of the page.

The eye is drawn to the point of focus in the page; judge how the visual content of the background is going to complement the proposition and the sales copy rather than fight with it. Looping, repetitive clips which the brain rapidly sees as background tend to work better than complex visual storylines which demand focused, foreground attention. Think subtlety, sliding beneath the radar.

Watch out for:

Load times: Yes, video files tend to be big, particularly if they’re in HD. The very first thing you have to do if you want attention is make sure your website loads quickly. A page that has to load a big video file is going to lose out, big time. Each second counts. But think again. How often are you going to need a video background in full HD? The goal is visual impact, not hyperrealism. High resolution video backgrounds will fight for attention with other content on the page. A 1280 or lower resolution file of a 10 second clip could achieve the effect you want and, with compression, be reduced to a load size of around 2Mb or less.

Hosting: In theory you can host the files for your video backgrounds with third party providers such as YouTube, Vimeo, Wistia or others. In practice, this is rarely ideal. No- and low-cost providers won’t give you full control over the appearance of your backgrounds. Even with a paid-for hosting service you’ll have to request the video stream from your third party supplier each time the page is visited, adding precious milliseconds to your load time. The alternative is to host your video backgrounds on your own server or via an appropriate Content Delivery Network (CDN). Given the likely size of the files, this is less of a problem than might appear and puts you in full control of the compression, performance and playout conditions.

Mobile: Provide a fall-back still image to display for backgrounds on mobile and for users with bandwidth limitations.

Audio: Video backgrounds load on autoplay, so make sure to mute the audio. The sudden shock of an unexpected soundtrack is pretty much a guaranteed backclick!