Five things we learnt at ‘Animations with impact’

Our seventh WonkComms Breakfast Club event was about creating animations with impact. This was a popular topic and places were snapped up within days of the event being announced on Twitter @WonkComms.

For ‘Animations with impact’, we were joined by Johanna Schwartz, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has produced and directed animations and films for broadcasters such as the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, Discovery, and National Geographic, as well as think tanks and NGOs.

We also had the pleasure of welcoming Polly Mallinson and Alice Macdonald from Project Everyone, a not-for-profit agency founded by Richard Curtis that includes communications and campaign specialists among its team. The mission of Project Everyone is to ensure that everyone is aware of the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Project Everyone’s films are therefore helping take the Global Goals from goals and icons to real world outcomes and you can view their extraordinary work at Project Everyone.

So, how can think tanks and research organisations use animation to communicate with their audiences? Animations must be part of a communications strategy from the start, but what is the best way to make this happen? How can you make sure that your animation gets seen by the right people and what does impact look like? How can we as a sector change the way we are viewing and using animations?

To kick off we shared examples of successful animations that we had crowd-sourced before the event. We then discussed what type of message and content works best. Animations as a content type have exploded in the last few years. Indeed, animations are now everywhere so you need to do more to stand out. Some of the examples we discussed included the animated RSA Short with Dr Brené Brown on empathy that has had more than 7 million views. The outstanding and joyful work of the late Han Rosling illustrated how the personality and voices of those involved matter in making animations stand out. We also talked through the brilliant Healthy Not Hungry animation by Project Everyone, among others.

Our Breakfast Clubs are held under the Chatham House rule, so we can’t say who said what, but there were several top takeaways.

1. Identify and understand your target audience

There was a general perception that animations are more suitable to address a mass market, but there was also an example shared where people had made films specifically for a political audience. So, audiences can range from mass market to parliamentarians but the important thing is to identify and understand your audience from the outset. Here, mapping user journeys can be a useful thing to do.

It is also important to understand the way your audience consumes information. Small screens can be a big challenge and whether a user is consuming your content on desktop or mobile makes a difference, so it is always good to design for consumption across different devices. What will stop people and make them take notice when they are scrolling and scrolling through their social media feeds. For example, here’s something you did not know about X…

2. Know your aims and set objectives

It was said that every time you start making something new using animation it feels like an entrepreneur creating a new business – like you must reinvent the wheel all the time. As a result, it is crucial to know that your work is going to cut through and reach those who you need it to reach.

You need be clear on your objectives. What do you want people to do at the end of the animation – is there a clear call to action? Animations can focus on raising awareness of an issue but it is best to be clear on expectations across different platforms from the start. Success can look different to different organisations, so set smart objectives that you can measure.  

3. An animation is only as good as your dissemination

Often animations do not do as well as they could as they are bolted on and not built in to the communications strategy. Animations need to be considered right at the start of the planning process. Simply, an animation is only as good as your dissemination. So, be relentless in your dissemination on and offline. For example, use your animations at events but also use them in your offices, maybe have the animation looping in your reception. Use your website and social media, but also use email as this can be highly targeted and effective – especially with parliamentarians.

Whatever you do, make animation together with distribution integral to communications planning right from the beginning.

4. A two-minute film cannot contain a lot of nuance

Animation can be used for all kinds of subjects, including sensitive subjects, and video can be good to evoke empathy. But, a big challenge with research communications is clarity versus nuance. A two-minute film cannot contain a lot of nuance so get to the point. Don’t try and put in too much information. Keep it simple by focusing on one aspect of the research. You may have to think laterally and choose just one fact or one piece of nuance to focus on. Perhaps a surprising stat or some nuance around one bit of data visualisation. Time-lapse can be a useful technique to show changes over time. There are also visual techniques to signify to the audience that the one thing you are focusing on is part of a much bigger thing. Sometimes animated GIFs may be better. You could, for example, have 10 amazing GIFs about 10 amazing stats being disseminated. Animations can be good for data subject matter and explainers.

Length wise, two minutes is usually the maximum. It is also useful to consider sound since many people play animations without audio. Therefore, subtitles are not only an accessibility issue but also an engagement issue. 

5. Don’t forget your internal audience

Winning the case within an organisation and getting buy-in to create animations is the first step, so it is important to consider your internal audience. ‘Proof of concept’ can be useful in this regard. When considering how and where to use animations it is good to remember that they often do not make good ‘trailers’ for reports – especially when they are bolted on as an afterthought.

Animations do not have to cost a fortune, although they can. They can also take months to produce but they do not have to. How long they take to make and how much they cost relates to your internal processes for producing animations, and your sign off system. Here, it is crucial to consider how you will manage your feedback process prior to sign off. As they say, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, so be clear who needs to be involved in the planning.

We hope these tips are helpful and wish you good luck – may all your animations have a HUGE IMPACT. See you at the next Breakfast Club.


WonkComms Breakfast Club at Soapbox in London

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