Animations: my step-by-step guide

A few weeks ago, we launched an animation to introduce the Overseas Development Institute’s Development Progress project to the world at large. It was with the slight trepidation that comes with launching any new piece of communication: will it be worth the effort and expense? Will people view it? Like it (and preferably on Facebook and YouTube so we can quantify it in our all-important M+E log)? Will it have an impact?

These are the sorts of perennial questions we ask of all outputs. But they became all the more important for this particular type of communication, as an animation was a relatively new endeavour for the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and we wanted to get it right.

Our project is aiming to reach out to a wide audience. This includes the traditional think-tank audience of highly specialist policy-makers and academics but also the ‘non-experts’ – those who are interested and engaged in development issues but not your stereotypical policy wonk. This set us up with a challenge: how do we cater for such different audience needs?

How do we create accessible outputs aimed at attracting a broad audience (such as animations, games, cartoons and so on), whilst also maintaining our authority to produce credible recommendations to policy-makers that are evidently based on ‘serious’ analysis? Will the production of one limit our ability to achieve the other? Won’t we need to dumb down the message and over-simplify things? What if a DfID official or minister were to stumble across such a ‘fluffy’ animation – how would we ever be taken seriously again?

These were the sorts of questions that were bandied about when we first explored the idea of an animation. And they aren’t necessarily specific to think tanks – I came across several such debates between public-facing campaigns staff and research-led policy staff when working for a major NGO.

However frustrating these debates may seem when you are in one, they are nevertheless critically important: it can take an organisation decades to build up a reputation for producing credible and robust research and only seconds to have that threatened by an ill-judged piece of communication.

And yet, it served us well to remember that policy wonks are, at the end of the day, people too. Not only are they likely to see dozens of research reports each week, they are also very capable of choosing different mediums to suit different purposes: they may still refer to a detailed report when formulating a particular policy or approach, but they may also like to watch a short animation over a morning cup of coffee in the same way they might browse their favourite newspaper.

So how did we address these challenges when producing our latest animation?

First, we made a decision from the outset of the project to develop communication outputs that respond to the needs of particular audiences rather than try to appeal to multiple audiences at once. This helped bring clarity across the production team as to the sorts of messages we wanted to convey if we were going to engage a non-specialist audience.

Second, (and despite my love of the simple style exemplified in Apple’s latest beauty), we all agreed we would uphold the integrity of the evidence we presented through prioritisation, rather than simplification, of messages and acknowledge the complexity of the research findings. The upshot of this is that our animation is rather jam-packed with information: for instance, we show not only the eye-catching extent of progress that has been made but we also touch upon the more process-oriented messages of how that progress was achieved. This means the viewer has a lot to take in, but hopefully also means they come away having learned a thing or two.

Third, we followed a tried-and-tested process, with input from communications staff and researchers at each stage. The latter’s role in identifying the right data and verifying its presentation was key.

  1. We started by constructing a detailed creative brief and agreed on a project manager who could maintain oversight. We were teaming up with two external organisations – the Global Poverty Project and through them Room3 – so it was critical we were all on the same page. We outlined:
    • Aims and objectives: why are we doing this and what must this animation achieve?
    • Target audience: who are the people we want to engage?
    • Proposition: what do we want the audience to come away thinking?
    • Content: what are the key elements, components and key messages we want to convey (and conversely, what messages should we avoid implying)?
    • Style: what is the tone we want to strike?
    • Outcome: what action do we want our audience to take?
    • Specification: what is the expected format? What similar examples work well? Will the animation stand alone or does it need to tie in with other communications?
  2. We then worked together to produce a detailed project plan: who would do what and by when, and crucially, how many stages of feedback we required as the animation developed. This allowed us to ensure what the viewer saw and heard on screen was faithful to the results of the original research on which it was based.The Global Poverty Project then produced the creative concept. We decided to plump for a 3 minute short featuring kinetic typography and vector 2D animation, rather than a character-based concept. This allowed us to present a variety of facts and statistics on screen, illustrating the data behind the analysis and lending weight to our conclusions.
  3. Next, ODI led on the provision of content and – alongside the Global Poverty Project – began to shape these messages into a workable narrative, script and accompanying story-board of static designs. This was gone over with a fine toothcomb by researchers and communications staff alike, to ensure that all content was accurate – crucially, before any costly animation began.In the penultimate stage, the Global Poverty Project and Room3 produced the animated content (again, with several feedback loops), followed by recording the voiceover and doing the techy bits (sound design, audio mastering and outputting), before uploading online.
  4. It is easy to think, with delivery of a polished animation, that your work is done. But actually, the final stage is the most crucial: promoting it to your target audience whilst monitoring and evaluating its uptake. All of the previous stages are futile unless people actually get to see your animation, so unless you’re blessed with a million followers, you’ll want to bring it to the attention of the networks, groups and individuals who can spread the word for you.
    • We immediately put the word out on Twitter, Facebook and Linked in.
    • We promoted the animation on the homepages of the ODI and Development Progress websites, and Global Poverty Project did the same on their Global Citizen platform: this had the added benefit of both a high rate of traffic and a natural audience base we might otherwise have struggled to attract.
    • The animation was promoted in both the ODI and Development Progress newsletters (combined reach of over 25,000), and we also sent out a dedicated email to 500 of our contacts encouraging them to check it out.
    • We promoted the animation in our email signatures, and encouraged ODI staff members to tweet it from their regular accounts too – ensuring we took advantage of their often vast personal networks.

    This meant that, within a few days, the animation was picked up and promoted by the Guardian Global Development, DfID, UNDP and many others, which likely created a spiral-effect, and has resulted in the 3,500 views we’ve had in just over three weeks. And our promotional work will of course continue.

It is still far too early to judge the success of this animation, and whether we can claim victory in appealing to a particular type of audience whilst not limiting our ability to appear credible to another. But the response from teams across ODI and beyond has been really encouraging. I have a hunch this won’t be the last animation you’ll see from us.

I'm ODI's Communications Officer for Development Progress, a 4-year research project which aims to better understand, measure and communicate what has worked in development and why. I'm fairly new to the think tank sector - but bring 5 years of experience working in NGO campaign communications.

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11 comments on “Animations: my step-by-step guide
  1. Paul says:

    Thats awesome 🙂 What software did you use to create this?

    • katyharris says:

      Thanks very much Paul! The actual animations were produced by Room3 – room3.com.au/ – who could tell you more about the software they use I’m sure…

  2. Animesh Purohit says:

    Good to see a comprehensive and thought through messaging with a upbeat tone…..cheers

  3. Hi Katy, Thank you very much for sharing this useful account. I found it particularly helpful because we (I work for UNDP) are undertaking an initiative to package our research in new formats, and have already produced some products (here is a link to our first one – http://europeandcis.undp.org/batken/). I really appreciated the structured approach you took to the planning process . Even though we are taking a similar approach, I learned a lot from your account. I look forward to seeing your future research-communications products.

  4. Thanks Katy, for sharing. I think that people like to get a message that is nicely packaged and that’s what you did…room3.com.au? I am going to look them up.

    Ann

  5. […] issues that get people animated down at the pub on a Friday night. So, as the ODI’s Katy Harris explained on our blog, animation is a natural tool for WonkCommers to use to spread the word. There were some […]

  6. […] issues that get people animated down at the pub on a Friday night. So, as the ODI’s Katy Harrisexplained on our blog, animation is a natural tool for WonkCommers to use to spread the word. There were […]

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