6 Steps to Building a Successful Animated Explainer Video

Explainer videos are a great way to engage potential customers and educate them about your product or service. Given that it is typically the first impression someone has of your company, it’s crucial to get it right.

While most companies outsource such a project, we ran the gauntlet and produced our animated explainer video ourselves. Well… mostly, but we’ll get into that later. Through our journey, we derived several takeaways. So we’ll take you through the process and share what we learned along the way.

The Prelude: 1% Vision, 99% Alignment

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let us take a moment and discuss how we got started. It all began with the typical “aha!” moment coming from marketing, “WE NEED A VIDEO EXPLAINER!”

After the seed was planted, it was time to get to work. The first thing we did was a self analysis and realized we had all the components we needed to produce an animated video already in house. We had the copywriter, the illustrator and the motion designer. We were all set and ready to go, and just like that, got started with reckless abandonment.

With little structure or planning, we embarked on our journey and the first draft of our script was created. From there, we mocked up a storyboard, made a rough demo and collected unstructured feedback from all different angles. Predictably, this project burned itself to the ground and we were left with a scrap heap.

Early renders of our first storyboard

Not knowing how to proceed, we decided to take a deep breath and let this idea “marinate” for awhile. After some intra-organizational reshuffling, our Design Studio was born and brought with it some much needed structure. We joined forces, brainstormed together, organized tasks, held recurring reviews and most importantly, started working as a cohesive unit. At Yieldr, we believe in the mantra, 1 % vision, 99% alignment.

With our new approach, the project rose from the ashes like a phoenix and the rest of the process flew by.

1. The Script

The script is the foundation to a successful explainer video. Before doing anything else, it’s paramount to have a well-written script to build the rest of the video on. Before diving into the script we asked ourselves eight questions:

  1. How would we describe our product in 1 or 2 sentences?
  2. Who is our target audience?
  3. What specific problem are we solving for our audience?
  4. What are the three key benefits of our product?
  5. How does our product work?
  6. What’s our voice?
  7. What is the visual style?
  8. What do we want to achieve with this video (what’s the call to action)?

Answering these questions provided the building blocks for our script. We used these responses as a quasi-outline and began filling in the gaps by creating transitions from scene to scene and analyzing every word in between.

After our “marination” phase, we gathered all the feedback from the initial script and rebooted it, taking a more collaborative approach this time. After the second draft, design and marketing got together in the war room and hammered out all the fine, but oh so important details, that make a video go from okay/good to great.

This part cannot be stressed enough as it established the structure, rhythm and pace of the video. It’s especially important to have your animator and writer working closely together here. This was something we wished we knew the first go around. In order to establish the rhythm and pace, we made some rough in-house voice recordings.

2. The Shorter the Better

According to writer and creative director, Helen Klein Ross, “the less you say, the more likely people are to remember.” Generally speaking, our attention spans have degenerated to a meager 8.25 seconds.

This means an explainer video needs to instantly engage its audience and be sensitive to how much of its audience’s time it is requesting. Now there is no holy grail when it comes to video length, but we used a benchmark of about 2 minutes. According to research conducted by Wistia, this was the cutoff point before we see a sharp decrease in engagement.

Following this rule, we knew we had to keep it simple, while at the same time ensuring not leaving behind important details from the message. This proved to be a big challenge. Even after the first video was finalized, a second shorter version of the video was edited. So the script was divided into four Scenes that spoke about:

  1. The problem
  2. The solution
  3. How it works
  4. A call to action

By creating two video lengths, it provides an opportunity to A-B test our creatives and see which video performs better. We’ve just released the videos, but we’ll certainly be diving into the stats so we can continue to optimize our performance.

3. The Voice-Over Selection

When we began developing our video, we set out to produce it 100% in-house with all of our own resources and talent. But during any journey, you always learn along the way. For us, we learned that we didn’t have what we needed in terms of a voice-over.

As alluded to before, we made a rough voice-over simply for the sake of finding the rhythm of our script. That rough voice-over signified that we didn’t have the delivery or tools to do this properly.

Nothing can ruin a video faster than poor audio. That’s why we enlisted the help of a professional. We found a very useful resource in Voices.com (and no we’re not a part of any affiliate marketing program 😉). We literally had every kind of voice talent at our fingertips.

This meant we really needed to think about our voice. When you get to this phase, it’s important to think about your brand just as much as you do with visual elements.

In order to stay in line with our tone, we searched for an empathetic, helpful, relaxed voice. Beyond that we aimed to have a Young adult — middle aged female with preferably an American accent.

After conducting a casting call and receiving a number of auditions featuring a snippet of our script, we each reviewed the auditions and came to a mutual decision. We found our voice!

If you’re curious, you can listen to our auditions here. You can watch our video at the end to see who got the call ;)

4. The Visuals

It’s time to get to the meat and potatoes of any animated explainer video — the visuals. Without any tasty eye candy, you can bet your video will fall flatter than a pancake.

While we had lots of experience creating illustrations, doing so for a video was a whole new beast for us. Therefore, we needed to do a lot of research, looking at other examples, to: understand how it looks, how long it lasts, what music and sounds were used and what kind of transitions and illustrations were present.

Although trivial, this proved to be an important first step as it made for a seamless collaboration between the illustrator and the motion designer:

We cannot stress enough how important it is for the illustrator and motion designer to work well together.

As far as the illustrating process went, we again strived for a collaborative effort. Using the script as the starting point, a brainstorm was held in order to capture the essence of our vision.

Once the script was reviewed, a brainstorm session was conducted with all of the stakeholders, because everyone’s input was valuable to capture the precise vision to suit the purpose of the video.

The first output was a bunch of rough sketches. First just with pencil and paper, then a second one a bit more polished, adding some color markers.

The next step was to sketch a frame by frame storyboard and pass it on to the motion designer to create a quick slideshow with the voice-over on top. This was paramount in giving us the overall feel for the video and allowing us to make the necessary adjustments before we went too far down the wormhole.

You can be sure we used this simple demo to gather external feedback before proceeding to creating the final illustrations. Once all the feedback was received, the illustrator and motion designer continued their close collaboration. This was quintessential in order efficiently turn our illustrations into high-quality animations.

From here, the vector-based illustrations were created, following the illustrations style and guidelines in our brandbook.

While creating the illustrations, it was imperative to keep the big picture in mind. The characters and objects wouldn’t remain static, but would “come alive.” Furthermore, The background had to match the transitions of the scenes, and all this together would be supported by the voice-over.

This is where external feedback from fresh eyes is very important since we no longer noticed some of the redundancies or unnecessary elements. All these small details add up and are very important for the final result.

Along the way, we realized we needed to add a bit more personality to our video. After watching a few videos and getting some inspiration, it was clear that it was necessary to add some humor to keep the audience entertained and connected to the brand.

This is the fun part of working on such a project — when we can laugh at our own work.

Apart from creating the visuals of the video explainer, the role of the illustrator was also that of an “art director.” She needed to help decide, for example, what sound could fit each facial expression or action and review the animation process to check if the animation sequence matched with what was originally intended while illustrating the script.

A few times it was necessary to adjust or redo a few frames in order to better suit the animations. Sometimes it’s necessary to take one step back in order to take two steps forward.

Again — because this cannot be overstated — the collaboration between the illustrator and the motion designer is extremely important!

5. Audio ( Background Music and Sound Effects)

It’s amazing what a song can do. Like video, music can evoke all types of emotions, and it has the ability to set the tone and pace of your explainer.

It’s a common mistake to select the background music at the end of the project, but we wanted to avoid this pitfall and select a tune that was appropriate for the project from the start of the editing process.

We needed a tune that complemented the story and had some specific tones such as: uplifting, soft, progressive, fun and positive. Not too fast, not too slow. Our final selection was “Only with you” a theme we found the track on Audio Jungle, which has it all. We can highly recommend it if you need royalty free music for your own video.

As for the sound effects, the main goal was to give each scene an interesting touch and make it easier to understand the scene. The sound effects were a layer we added after the animations, so we really noticed the impact they had when comparing it to our previous cut without them.

Truth be told, we actually went a little sound effects crazy. When we went back and watched our video with all of our original sound effects, it was apparent that we went over the top with all of the bings, clanks and boops. The sound effects became distracting, gimmicky and took away from the narration and animation.

In the end, we ended up cutting more than half of the sound effects to achieve a more balanced result. It’s imperative that every aspect of your video works in unison with one another, creating the perfect mix to deliver just the right message.

6. Editing

This has been by far, the most time-consuming part of all as it meant bringing everything together: animating the illustrations, syncing with the background music, voice-over and sound effects, and making a lot of adjustments as timing is concerned. All the while constantly exporting clips for sharing the progress of our work. The main lesson learned here is KEEP IT ORGANIZED!

You will end up with hundreds of files that will be imported into your video editing software each time you open it.Therefore, it is imperative to create a solid structure for the folders, including a a naming structure that makes it easy to recall your files.

This is especially important if you are planning to work from different computers. We ran into missing files more than once and it can be very frustrating and time consuming to retrieve files that were not originally in the initial folder structure.

After all the final edits were made, it was time to roll out what was the culmination of a lot of hard work and collaboration. We’re very happy with the end result, but we’ll let you judge for yourself.

We hope the insights we’ve shared from our own creative process will help you along your own journey and maybe prevent you from making some of the same mistakes we made. In the end, we can’t stress enough how important alignment, collaboration and teamwork is to successfully execute a project of this undertaking.

This article was originally published on Medium.

Joseph Vito DeLuca

Joseph Vito DeLuca

Chief Marketing Officer at Yieldr