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Reports of Explainer Videos’ Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Remember how cool and fresh the first animation explainer videos felt? Yeah, neither can I. 

That’s because the format has been very much overdone over the many intervening years. The explainer video has become the 21st century version of the infomercial. Today, the market is flooded with the same, predictable, unimaginative formula that’s been around since the beginning. Which is why, lately, explainer videos have been largely left for dead within creative marketing circles. Good luck distinguishing your brand with the same old recipe everyone else is using. Or, so goes the thinking. 

What happened? How has a creative form known for fun and innovation become so bland and stale?

More importantly, what’s going to happen? Because the need for educating audiences and prospective customers is actually greater than ever. The rate of technological change continues to increase, which means there are more new products and services being introduced today than ever before. And no other format has proven to be a suitable alternative to explainer videos. Which is one of the reasons there are so many of them in the first place. 

So, maybe the explainer video shouldn’t be left for dead. Perhaps, it just needs to be rethought and revived. Is it possible to cook up an entirely new dish using the same old recipe? To figure that out, let’s take a look at what made the original recipe so successful.

Digital Design And the Rise of Animation Explainer Videos

The very first explainer videos arrived around the time of the iPhone launch in 2008. And they looked something like this:

That’s right, the first explainer videos were just people drawing on a whiteboard. But then, something cool happened. The person was replaced by animation and voiceover, and the whiteboard explainer video was born. 

The novelty of simple drawings (motion graphics) leveraged creatively to explain complicated ideas struck an extremely popular chord. (Not surprising, since animation has been repeatedly proven to be incredibly effective at capturing and holding user attention.) Suddenly, brands felt empowered to turn any ordinary (read: boring) topic into engaging, interesting narratives. And, in a blink, whiteboard animations were everywhere.

The popularity of this early iteration of the explainer video was strengthened by another trend. The iPhone era ushered in an entirely new digital technology ecosystem. And in those early Web 2.0 days, consumers needed a lot of hand-holding to learn and become comfortable using new digital applications. Whiteboard animations were the ideal solution. They struck the perfect tone (informal and lighthearted) for lean-and-mean, tech start-up culture and its consumer audiences. 

However, as the early digital ecosystem evolved, so did the early explainer video. 

Apple’s Flat Design: Godmother of the Explainer Video Formula 

The first Apple mobile devices used skeuomorphic design — digital visual elements that mimicked real-world counterparts — to construct early mobile user experiences. However, as users quickly became comfortable with the touchscreen interface (vs. keyboard), Apple moved to create a new visual style to create truly authentic digital experiences. In building this new digital environment, Apple’s UI architects used flat design principles as their guide. 

Flat design is characterized by the absence of 3D visual effects and realistic graphical elements. It uses 2-dimensional visual details and objects with simple shapes, bold typography and bright contrast colors. This minimalist design style offers many advantages for digital user experiences, including: 

  • More focus on content (the element most important to users)
  • Better responsiveness (easier to adapt 2D elements across different devices and screen sizes)
  • Faster page load times (more immediate user access) 

Creating minimalist digital visual elements is also faster and easier than their more realistic counterparts. For all these reasons, UX designers quickly adopted the flat design style as the new standard. That status was cemented when Microsoft and Google followed Apple’s lead with the release of Windows 8 and Google’s Material Design. 

The adoption of flat design had far-reaching consequences, including for animation. It made producing animated videos cheaper and more efficient. The new visual language also made it possible to upgrade the whiteboard explainer video experience with a fuller, more complete motion graphic presentation. Low production costs and high user engagement spurred more demand for animation explainer videos by tech companies and startups. And animation shops began producing this new style of explainer video in droves. 

What Went Wrong With Animation Explainer Videos? 

Novelty is what made the original whiteboard animations so popular. Explainer videos were as much a source of entertainment for audiences as they were informational experiences (perhaps moreso). However, like the carefully considered minimalist elements of UX design, animation videos also tend to follow a strict, minimalist formula. 

Most explainer videos deliver the classic narrative: “Meet John. Problem X is making John sad. Here’s how Product A helps John solve Problem X. Now, John is happy. Use Product A.” However, the similarities don’t end with just visual style and narrative. Most explainer videos also feature extremely familiar: 

Place a couple of simple characters into a templated animated environment, add a scripted voiceover, some ukulele music, a few clicks, whistles and snaps, and voila! Just like the “Meet John” narrative, this formula has been repeated an incalculable number of times by thousands of brands. 

Today, the flat design animation style has become commoditized. Some animation shops even build their business models around selling inexpensive, automated, DIY animation templates that anyone can simply plug and play. The commoditization of animated explainer videos greatly contributes to the oversaturation problem. It also explains why explainer videos have come to be seen as cheap, boring and inauthentic. 

Breathing New Life Into Animation Explainer Videos

Traditional explainer videos have largely lost their ability to delight viewers and capture their attention. However, there is a way to bring back novelty to animation marketing and win back the hearts and minds of viewers. But you’ll need to add a few new spices to make the original recipe a bit more appealing for the modern consumers. 

Today’s users are digital natives. They are much more savvy (and getting savvier) and better educated about tech and the digital marketplace. Simplicity, the big appeal of flat design, is a lesser priority for Web 3.0. Individualized and intuitive digital user experiences are the contemporary norm. And there are a few ways to adjust the animation formula for explainer videos to account for these new trends. 

1. Be Bold and Unexpected 

If you want to bring back that feeling of novelty, you must stray from the expected. Challenge your animation partners to be bold in their conception and execution. Loosen the restrictions that the old formula provides and see how far the boundaries can be pushed. And use your animations in new ways (not just top, right on your product landing pages). You’ll be surprised by how accepting audiences are of new takes on old trends. 

2. Be Less Flat

The flat design style still rules the digital ecosphere, but no longer with an iron fist. And animation styles have evolved significantly since the birth of mobile digital experiences (or, in some cases, gone back to their roots). There is a much richer collection of new visual styles and design approaches to draw upon. Don’t be afraid to introduce and mix in some elements of depth and creativity to your animation videos.  

3. Be More Trustworthy and Less Salesy

Digital natives are not only more savvy users, they’re also more savvy customers. Today’s consumers are largely armored against traditional sales narratives and tend to filter out hard-sell tactics. The better approach for capturing your target audience’s attention is to establish and build trust. 

Edutainment is one recent trend in animation that’s shown promise in creating more meaningful customer relationships (as well as promoting learning in the classroom). It is one manifestation of the greater shift to content marketing, where the goal isn’t an immediate transaction, but rather the formation of a long-term connection with a highly targeted audience. 

Of course, edutainment animation won’t replace the need for animated explainer videos for product and service launches. The tried-and-true formula does work for a reason. But adding this approach to your mix of animation marketing tactics can yield great results. As can a more empathetic tone and narrative for your animated product launch efforts. 

Long Live the Explainer Video 

The explainer video concept isn’t dead. It’s just been buried under an avalanche of cheap, boring, formulaic productions. However, the need for educating consumers in engaging and entertaining ways about new products and services will always exist. 

It’s not only possible to create memorable informational experiences for your customers with animated explainer videos, the strategy can be leveraged with massive success for product launches and advertising campaigns. But you can’t follow a bland recipe written for yesterday’s digital users. Today’s audiences have a more discerning palate. To reach them, you’ll need to flavor your animation dishes with the right mix of spices. 

Felippe Silveira
Felippe Silveira
Co-founder & CEO at MOWE Studio