Animated Video Production

What We’ve Learned from 10 Years of Making Explainer Videos

Shawn Forno 01.10.2017

It’s hard to believe that we created our first animated explainer video all the way back in 2007. A lot has changed in the past ten years.

As we prepare for a busy 2017 IdeaRocket founder Will Gadea, producer SaraJane Askildsen, and animator Scott Strong reflect on how the explainer video industry has changed, what they’ve learned from ten years of making whiteboard and explainer videos, and what’s in store for the next decade and beyond.

What was the explainer video industry like when you got started?

WILL: When I started there were a few studios that were getting by on marketing and sales execution alone. They didn’t really offer quality to match their prices. That doesn’t really work anymore. The premium studios are truly premium providers, and the ones that can’t offer quality have to compete on price. The industry has matured.

What were your expectations for animated explainer videos?

WILL: From a business perspective, it seemed like the future then, and it still seems like the future. It’s just a very rich information medium, and the most powerful way to communicate online. If anything has surprised me it’s how beautiful the work has gotten.

Which industries did you expect to work with? How has that changed? Any surprises along the way?

WILL: When we started, it was pretty much just tech companies that used explainer video. Now everybody does. About 80% of our client base has yearly revenues over a billion dollars. If you told me that five years ago, I would have been shocked. Also, I’m surprised at the legs whiteboard animation has! If you look at Google trends, the interest keeps holding up!

What makes animated explainer videos different from other animation?

SCOTT: Well, animated explainer videos are different in that their goal isn’t so much to entertain as it is to educate. The emphasis is usually on clearly illustrating some complex concepts, instead of the stimulus-response nature of something like Looney Tunes—not that there’s anything wrong with Looney Tunes!

What makes animated explainers different from live action? What do animated videos do better?

SCOTT: For years I used to wonder why artists were needed for medical illustrations since photography exists and it takes far less time to take a picture than paint a painting. Turns out, an illustration of a heart is far more useful to medical students because the illustration can be clearer and the interior elements of the organ can be illustrated in addition to the exterior components. It’s just easier for the student to see the important information.

I believe the same is true of explainer videos. Sure, a CEO can take the audience on a tour of his facility, and it can be educational, but there’s always going to be the optimal angle that the camera just can’t get to, or a casing on a piece of machinery that prevents the audience from seeing what it’s really doing, and so on. Also, there’s only so much video editing that can save a truly boring presentation, whereas with animation we can keep things moving and make sure that everyone gets the important ideas across.

In animation you have complete control over a wide variety of elements of the production. You can slow down the action to better explain something, then speed it up to move to another element of the story. You can remove obstructing objects to demonstrate what’s going on behind it, and create metaphors in the storytelling. You’re not bound by the immutable laws of the real world. The possibilities are endless.

What surprised you the most about the explainer video industry?

SaraJane: Probably the continuing popularity of whiteboard animation. We were pleasantly surprised that the demand for whiteboard animation videos has been fairly consistent. In retrospect it makes sense because it strikes a nice level of professionalism and creativity that’s appealing for explainer videos. Also, it allows for really crisp illustrative line work that isn’t always achievable in other styles of animation.

Were you surprised at the growth of whiteboard videos, like RSA, over the past decade?

animated explainer video

SCOTT: I was actually more surprised that there was still demand for it! A lot of the motion graphics/corporate video field seems rather trendy. A visual style will be in fashion for a little while and then fade away. For a little while animated 3D stroke lines were the trend, then there was particle explosions, if you look around you can see definite trends.

Whiteboard is still here though.

I think the thing that keeps people engaged with whiteboards is that the audience is always wondering what’s going to be drawn next. There may also be a sense of vicarious collaboration as well, but I think it has more to do with the mystery of what the next thing to be drawn will be.

What have you learned about the process of making and the impact of explainer videos in your time at IR?

SaraJane: One of the most important aspects of creating a successful explainer video is understanding the unique needs of both the client and the audience. It’s obvious that this should be an important part of the style and creative direction for the project, but it’s equally as important in the production planning stages as well.

Clients will have universal needs (i.e. meeting deadlines for deliverables, staying on-budget), industry-specific needs (such as legal approval processes or medical reviews if it’s healthcare-related), and then individual needs that are unique to their organization, personnel, and audience (i.e. a particular topic may be more sensitive, there may be one or more key individuals with specific tastes that will need to approve the video, a prior video project unrelated to IdeaRocket was unsuccessful and has affected internal expectations, etc.).

Understanding that each project is a unique animal allows you to plan production in a way that won’t waste the client’s resources and gives them the best value for their investment. Prompting the client with the right questions, listening to their concerns, and internalizing their objectives is just as important on your first project as it is one hundred projects later.

What have you learned making explainer videos for clients?

WILL: I think we’ve gotten better at that dialogue where we try to see their needs and address them. The technology has changed a little bit—especially 3D—but our tools were fairly mature 10 years ago.

What is the most common concern that clients have?

SaraJane: Our client’s most frequent concern is keeping their video content on-brand while still providing something new and exciting to watch. Every company has its own mix of playfulness and professionalism and it’s our job to understand that mix and project it for them.

What is the most common goal they have for their video?

SaraJane: I’d say it’s about a 60/40 split between educating audiences and motivating them to some form of action. When clients come to us seeking an explainer video, it’s different than an animated broadcast spot because there’s usually something about the message that needs a little extra effort for its audience to understand.

What’s kind of cool is how much (and please forgive the most overused business buzzword of all time!) synergy there is between these two objectives. A better understanding of a good product/service often motivates people to action.

What trends are on the horizon for explainer videos in the next 10 years?

WILL: A few stray predictions:

  • VR will fill an important niche, but it will still be a niche.
  • Quality will percolate down from the top of the market, because an awareness of the value of video will grow.
  • The media companies will follow the lead of Vox.com and the New York Times and invest in quality video, with an emphasis on evergreen content.
  • Hybrid techniques, mixing live action with animation, drawn animation with CGI, etc. will continue to flourish
  • Big companies will realize the power of video as a culture-shaper in their organization.

SCOTT: Chalkboard videos. Yep, the next innovation is going to be to invert the contrast and draw in white against a black background. Then later, it will be green chalkboards. After that, there will be a retro drive back to whiteboards, but this time it will be with red ink.

Animated explainer video has grown up since the initial explosion of animated whiteboard videos in the RSA-style ten years ago, but the demand for quality and clarity have remained the same. No matter your medium, animated explainer videos are here to stay, and by the look of things, they’re only getting better!

Shawn Forno

Shawn Forno is a massive Studio Ghibli fan who does content marketing. In that order. Find his other writing and extensive travel blogging here.

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