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Five downsides to animated explainers

By Tim Cumming and Helen Pain, updated 22 May 2021

We've all seen simple animations from financial and professional firms. They will have a kind of similar look, don't they? Cute cartoons. A bit child's play.

Yet, in how many of them can you recall the story? The features? The benefits?

The problem with animations - and there are many - is that they're rarely remembered. Their principal value is in mythbusting or de-mystifying a process. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer (slide 11) records a constant decline in corporate trust - and using animation is hardly a ringing endorsement of your team or senior people.

The five big issues and downsides with using animation and animated videos are as follows:

Look as good as the Good You Do
Windows of high-rise office buildings

1. Trust

Business audiences are partial to an animation from time to time, but largely, they regard them as forms of explanation or process unpacking. As such, your teams, your management, and all the people that face your clients, are absent from the video.

What's portrayed instead is a feeling of the capability of your firm. Its flow. Its custom process. Its proprietary information. Its operation. This might be very suitable for a viewer intent on trying to understand a particular process, and it may well appeal to the left brain of a potential buyer, but only at a very special moment in the buying cycle.

Don't get us wrong, animations are brilliant in the right moment.

But if you're not present in your videos, if you can't be seen, and instead you're essentially presenting avatars, the biggest problem is that your customer will not understand that it's you or your people, or your teams, who are delivering the value that they seek.

Ultimately, you're hiding.

That is a rather profound message that your communication is projecting at your viewer. This downside alone is worth considering a pause in your tracks, a pause in your rush to embrace the apparent cuteness, and fun of an animation.

The animation's core strength is about explaining the process, and some of the most complex processes certainly benefit from animation. Certain kinds of product demos or service demos work well in an animated environment: the ability to portray activities where danger or risk is present, for example, is harder to bring to life when you're filming in the real world than it is in an animation.

Harder but not impossible.

There are a myriad of ways that you can explain the process in real life that will maintain trust with your audience.

Do List

  • Visibility: Who in your team is the expert? How will they convey your message?
  • Process unpacking: Consider an explainer video over an animation.
Beautiful red flowers

2. Use of templates

So many firms turn to low-cost templates often packed with avatars, pre-built movements, perhaps even entire stories, but certainly story structures. While these will help you jump from nowhere to somewhere quickly, they will not help you land in a commercially rewarding place. They won't help you to differentiate, or tell your story in a way that suits your product, your service, or your audience.

The real downside, so plainly visible to all viewers, is that you look like everyone else.

If you're going to use ThemeForest, or any of the major template platforms, you will, without fail, become generic. By accident, you'll end up looking like a shoe shop, a pizza parlour, a hairdresser, or a dog groomer, simply because they're all using the same templates. This is a depletion of brand, and it's a thumping risk you should avoid at all costs.

Even a desire to explain the simplest aspect and facet of your business or its features should avoid a templated approach. The dead giveaway that you're using templates, and dull, ubiquitous, derivative animations, is that despite the ability to customise the colours, the size or the nature of the objects inside the templates, you won't be changing much about the structure, the gestures contained, or the transitions.

Is that how you want your brand to appear? Didn't think so.

Do List

  • Brand: Consider what makes your company stand out from the competition
  • Selling your product: Display it instead of talking about it - show, don't tell.
Negative symbols on background

3. Cartoon animations

Assuming you're not using templates, another danger is to drift into the direction of cartoons. Animation doesn't have to resort to this, yet, many corporate uses of cartoons feel as if they belong to the world of clipart, and the Microsoft paperclip - remember him? Good old Clippy.

While cartoons lend an air of lightness and levity, what they most certainly undermine is a sense of serious capability; genuine concern for client care; high levels of service; attention to detail; trustworthiness; optimism; loyalty, and imagination.

All of these important business emotions are not easy bedfellows with bouncy, fun, childlike imagery. Even adult cartoons like Family Guy and The Simpsons take us some distance from the heartland of serious, reassuring, enterprising goodness.

No one's saying an animation has to be stuffy or dull. But characters and objects with cartoon-like motion or gestures will damage your brand. Much better to make earnest, custom animations that express the shape flow and relationship of the players and objects inside your business process.

Do List

  • Tone: Consider whether a cartoon would effectively sell your integrity, drive and professionalism. Explore alternatives - try Googling 'best illustrators of 2021', or have a glance it the grown-up work of leading illustrators here
Colouring pencils

4. Storytelling

One of the principal problems with leaving storytelling to animators is that their narrative landscape is very different from yours. And, unless you're using a business animator, or someone who's very used to producing custom business animations, there is a tendency within the animation community to borrow from entertainment oeuvre, which has a completely different playbook, ethos, and emotional landscape from that required by business.

In short, your story can get lost.

A good business story, for example, might have a STAR story structure. S-T-A-R. It is a structure told in roughly a 2:1:5:1 ratio. An animator might lead you down a garden path towards subversion, shock or extremism, for example, which may have little place in telling your story.

The critical component of any video is a CTA (Call To Action). Unless you have planned your ending well, an animator may struggle to get an appropriate CTA - this should be the proper starting point for any animation, indeed, any video. Starting with the CTA and working backwards is critical.

Do List

  • Pain: Consider your viewer's pain points: what is their challenge, and how will you remedy it?
  • Audience: What are their beliefs, or disbeliefs? This is what you must transform in order to incite action
  • CTA: What do you want your audience to do with this information? Have you given them enough to risk that next step?
A dancing ballerina

5. Emotion in your CTA

It's common for animators to bring a joyful or humorous conclusion to their narratives. If you use a templated animation, you'll almost be required to conclude with a big, bold statement, which is illustrated by a humorous gesture, or a grand finish, taken from the world of cartoonary. A happy ending, if you will.

While you might want a happy ending, you may also want to remind the client of the risk, the danger, or the pain, at the same time as offering them a solution. A remedy/pain pairing. The emotion of decent animation can be slightly dark. It can be textured. It can be three dimensional. And it can be cinematic.

When you consider all of the animations that you've seen in your lifetime (some of them in a cinema, like Toy Story), you will notice an incredible cinematic eye has been used to tell these stories, and a whole arsenal of camera techniques we're all very familiar with, even though we can't put a name to them, because we've spent most of our lives simply looking at them and enjoying them. Understanding them.

Techniques such as:

These are rarely used in business animation, but when they're used properly, they convey storytelling emotion, for instance, the tracking shot adds intensity to any scene. Your animator may well be using such a technique, if you're using a good one. Though certainly a templated or low-cost animation, wouldn't be using these kinds of techniques.

Cinematic storytelling gives your animations such a lift, and some of the best animations for business purposes include these cinematic techniques.

Critically, when your story reaches its conclusion, the prevailing emotion at the point of the CTA is one which must reflect both on the solution and the problem. Challenge: consider your clients, marketing and video costs, and how best to utilise and adapt to a changing buyer landscape

The emotion, which drives through that from almost any business, will belong to a family of emotions we discussed at the beginning of the article: trust, loyalty, hope, inspiration, confidence, and imagination. These are the King emotions you'll need to bring to the end of your story, in order to justify the CTA.

Do List

  • Gain: Always calculate the value of your CTAs
  • Value: Estimate your ROI here, and set your budget wisely
Photo of the curve of a strawberry

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