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Animation or Live Action: Which Style Of Explainer Video Is Best For You?

In this digitally-abundant age, one cannot afford to underestimate the power of the explainer video. They boost conversions, lead to higher rankings on Google searches and have been credited for propelling dozens of company’s (Dollar Shave Club, Squatty Potty, Venmo) out of obscurity and into the household-name stratosphere.

Clearly, explainer videos are a worthy investment. But knowing what kind of explainer video to make—not so clear.

The biggest decision most companies face when making an explainer video is choosing between animation and live action. Now, despite what you may think, this is not an easy choice to make. This is no hazmat suit factory. There is no one-size-fits-all. Each style has its own set of perks and pitfalls and deciding which style of explainer video is going to benefit your business the most will ultimately come down to a number key factors.

These include...

Product Vs. Service 

One of the textbook rules of explainer video production goes as follows:

If you’re selling a tangible product, opt for live animation. If you’re selling a service, stick to animation.

The rationale behind this is pretty simple. Since consumers physically interact with the products they purchase, they usually prefer to...(Warning: pun approaching)...spy before they buy—hence why live action is the way to go.

Services, on the other hand, are more abstract and typically require a richer, more intricate style of storytelling which animation lends itself to well. Put another way, when you’re trying to get a lot of information in the consumer’s face in as little time as possible—which is usually the challenge for web and app-based services—animation is simply more efficient.

A good example of this is Desk.com’s animated explainer video. It tells you everything you need to know about the company’s complex CRM system in under 2 minutes. Contrast that with this live action explainer video which is marketing a near-identical service, and you’ll see a very big difference.

Big Budget Vs. Small Budget

For a lot of business, it’ll be their budget that ultimately decides what style of explainer video they end up rolling with. This is because the ballpark figure difference is pretty hefty.

For most animation videos you’ll be looking at a price tag of $10,000 or less. Whereas live action is muy expensivo and can cost anywhere between $10,000 - $50,000.  

But, as with everything in life, there are always exceptions. For example, some of the more sophisticated animation styles (such as stop motion graphics and 3D) can end up costing well over $20K.

On the flipside, if you can pull in a few favors with your pals in the film production biz, then you might just be able to send the production cost of your live action video down to Chinatown. Don’t believe me? The how’s this for a fun fact: remember that insanely viral video that launched Dollar Shave Club into the $1B juggernaut? Well, it only cost a scrappy $4,500 to make.

One-Off Video Vs. Ongoing Campaign

Another factor you should be taking into account when deciding what style of explainer video to make is your overarching marketing strategy. Do you see your company wheeling out a series of product or demo videos over a period of time, or do you just want to make a one-off video to get your name out there?

If it’s the latter, then you’re going to want to go hard and you're going to want to go big with a sleek, smooth, and preferably funny (please, just make it funny) live action production.

Now, given the aforementioned cost involved and the fact you only have one shot to get it right, we’ll admit that live action can be a tad risque. But, should you happen to nail it (it nail it you shall), then you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank/viral famedom just like Summly did with its 2013 debut video.

However, if you plan on making multiple videos over a period of time (Exhibit A: this Anthem Healthcare series), then animation is definitely the way to go. Not only is animated content simpler to produce, it’s also easier to edit and recreate, making it ideal for ongoing campaigns.

New Consumers Vs. Existing Consumers

Lastly, you need to pinpoint who exactly you want your video to reach. If your primary goal is to raise brand awareness among the ignorant masses who for some ridiculous reason haven’t heard of your paranormal activity tracker app yet, then we'd once again recommend the go-hard-or-go-home live action video approach. Compared to animation, live video is far more effective for building a connection with your viewers which exactly what you’re going to want to be doing if you’re the new product or service on the block.

But, if your video is intended to sell or communicate something to an existing audience, then we say do as Western Union did with its mobile payment solution promo and opt for animation. Since you’ve already built a connection with your audience, you’re better off taking the low-maintenance approach and saving your resources for your next big marketing project.

The Verdict

Ultimately, there is no single right approach for making explainer videos. The options are endless and you’re never going to know if you made the right choices until you’re sitting there watching your social media views and shares inch up and up and up. But hopefully, with the help of this post, you’ll be that little bit closer to working out what will and won’t work your company.

Now, for those of you who are ready to get and dirty and start creating, please proceed to our next chapter of required reading: How To Make A Great Explainer Video.

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