Explainer videos: how best to use them.

The description “explainer video” is a nice, simple catch-all term to use for the visual format, but the approaches they can take are far from uniform.

With explainers, it’s extremely important to ensure you don’t have the same approach for everything. Think of format as tone of voice; you wouldn’t use a sad voice to launch a product, nor would you tell a patient they would make a full recovery in a sarcastic manner. What you’re communicating often needs more than enthusiasm and knowhow – it needs the visual delivery to match.

So, without further ado, here are perhaps the four most widely-adopted ways to deliver your explanations to your target audience – as well as recommendations for when you’d do it this way.

Live-action explainer

Best used for: Selling a physical product or service; making a mark; building a brand; establishing a personality.

What you need: Likeable, talented people on-screen; a very strong message; a direct script.

Remember when I talked about Dollar Shave Club? Michael Dubin, the company’s CEO, was fortunately charismatic enough to pull his own explainer video off himself. His example is exactly what you want from a live-action explainer: funny or not, it needs to describe the product or service in question, and in straightforward terms. DSC, for example, is incredibly simple: $1, get razor blades. Dubin could’ve done it in ten seconds, but it was about connecting with the audience while delivering the message.

While people often believe this more direct format for an explainer means you have no room to be creative or different, they’re absolutely wrong; if anything, being more inventive in the realms of reality only stands to gain more traction, if you do it well. You’re not going to be OK Go, perhaps, but you can set the bar pretty high with some clever camera shots and the right people on board.


Animated explainer

Best used for: Communicating ideas and thought processes; converting metaphors into visual

What you need: A talented animator (I’m not being sarcastic, I’m being deadly serious); a product you’re sure that couldn’t be sold better live; time; money.

Firstly, “animated” doesn’t just mean “cartoon”.

The best way to decide if you need to go the animated route or not is to ask yourself a simple question: can you demonstrate what you do in a physical way? By which I don’t mean communicating, say, pay-per-click advertising through interpretive dance – but if there’s no physical product, then standing and talking about it in front of a camera is probably pretty worthless.

Services – for example, workflow tools, financial transaction services or instant messaging products – need to be shown to work in a way that may be too boring to show on screen, or may have what you believe to be an emotional or social benefit that you can’t attribute in a simple showcase.

It’s not about explaining things simply with the occasional cartoon lightbulb, cloud or a daft-looking bird for punctuation – it’s bringing something a little less tangible to life in an engaging way. Animated explainer videos allow for more personality when what you’re selling simply doesn’t have it. Nobody sees PayPal as cheeky, or Google Hangouts as down with the kids. They just do things simply and effectively, but in a different manner to competitors – which is why both companies have gone the animated route (with, admittedly, live-action parts too).

What’s more, if you offer something that evolves with the times – software being a particularly excellent example – or you’re the kind of place that rebrands every now and then (even subtly), you can go back and edit the bits that don’t comply with your new look, product, or service. Think of it as an investment for the future.

God forbid you get a bad animator, though. Getting the wrong person for your job can turn a potential Pixar short into Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected, or one of the less funny episodes of 12 oz. Mouse. …not to say that “animated” means “cartoon”, though. You know what I mean.


Slide-based explainer

Best used for: Demonstrations, usually of software; how-to videos; addressing more in-depth functions of a product or service.

What you need: A clear storyboard; a start and a finish; the steps in between.

I love slide-based explainers. They’re my absolute favourite. They don’t need to be static; for example, you can flip between screenshots with active mouse cursors, or display a few diagrams. Chuck in the occasional zoom shot when you need to differentiate between two items in a list and bosh – that explanation you wanted just explained what you needed. If you’re doing a simple demonstration or explaining the minutiae of a specific service function, just stick to this. People will leave feeling happy, because you’ve given them the answer they’re looking for.


Text-based “whiteboard”-style explainer

Best used for: Nothing.

What you need: No self-respect.

It’s been done. It’s been done a million times. Sure, you have no budget, but please, don’t go down the route of look-I-have-a-whiteboard-and-a-marker-and-ideas-and-a-camera-stuck-on-fast-forward-oh-no-watch-out-guys-there’s-another-guy-helping-me-out-with-a-DIFFERENT-COLOURED-PEN-isn’t-this-wacky?-please-love-us-we’re-inventive.

Even if you go the more high-tech whiteboard and animation combination route, the only thing this format will communicate is a lack of originality. You can stand in front of a board and draw as you talk, maybe – if you’re drawing stuff and you have enough in the way of words to cover what you’re saying – but this one’s been done to death. 0/10 would not do, even if my job was to sell actual whiteboards.

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