video style guide

The different types of explainer videos… which one is right for YOU?

Producing an explainer video for your company can be critical to your growth and success. But there are so many options out there… how can you choose the right video type and the production company that can really help and deliver a compelling return on your investment?

Video vs Animation

Video is when you’re using a camera, animation is when you don’t.  So if you have an actor on-screen or an overhead camera recording something happening, those are videos.  Animations are produced digitally, and typically involve: first- the production of art files, and then- post production.

For digital-only animations (generally lower-budget), it’s common to have a 2-person team – an artist and an animator – working alongside, but many higher-end animations are produced by a “one-man band” that does both the art and the animation.  This helps because they have a better sense of what they need from the art in order to execute a higher-quality (= more fluid, better transitions) animation.

Of course, really high-end animations (Pixar quality) like the John Lewis commercial below involve dozens or hundreds of people who are hyper-specialized.  These are geared towards TV advertising so they have much larger budgets.

Christmas Advert, The Bear and the Hare- John

When you plan a $10 million ad campaign, you can afford to spend $500K or $1 million on production.  But when you’re doing digital ads, spending $100K a year, you can only spend about $5-10K on the ad.


Explainer Video

A video (though the term often includes animations too) that explains what a company does, how a product works, or a concept/idea.  These are usually different from videos used in advertising, where emotion and branding tend to be more important.

Typical explainer videos are 1.5-2 minutes long, and can be in any style: from whiteboard to motion graphics, to live-action (with one or more actors) or even hybrids (actor-based videos with graphic overlays).


DIY vs Freelancer vs Agency

Here are some tips to decide which direction you should go, knowing the Pros and Cons of each.  And yes, you always get what you pay for.

  • DIY: You can produce your own videos with platforms like Powtoons, Sparkol and VideoScribe. However, it will take you many hours to produce a semi-decent outcome.  If you’re creatively inclined and have the time or don’t have the budget though, they’re a great option.
  • Freelancer: You can go on Upwork or Fiverr and get simple explainer animations for $300-500. The difference from DIY is that you’ve traded your time for someone usually at a lower-cost country, so it makes sense.  The result though won’t be much better.  Still, when budget is tight and you can spend your time better elsewhere, that’s the way to go.
    But don’t go hoping that you’ll find a diamond in the rough.  Animation production takes A LOT of time and good artists and animators get snapped up by agencies (there’s always great demand for them, so why would they compete on prices on a freelancer platform that commoditizes their craft?).
  • Agency: If you want your video to deliver results, you pretty much have to turn to an agency. And you want one that has experience in your industry.  You want to talk to people who know what they’re doing and ‘get’ your business and goals.
    But not all agencies are created equal.  Many agencies are started by disgruntled creatives or videographers.  They’re very talented, but you work with an agency for the 360-degree expertise they can bring to the table.
    How should you craft your message, how should you deliver it, where does video make the most sense, how are you going to maximize your ROI from this investment, how can you develop a video strategy?  Some can wing it, most cannot.  And unfortunately it’s your challenge to weed them out.


The different styles, and what they’re good for

For the most common styles, we’ve created this infographic to help you navigate the landscape and choose the one that’s right for you.  But a simple way to categorize them is:

Whiteboard animation: You see a hand speed-drawing on a white canvas (or with white chalk on a blackboard).  For good-quality whiteboards, you should expect to pay $3-5K for a 1-1.5 minute animation.

These are ideal for explaining concepts, and for lowering your audience’s barriers to new messaging.  That’s because we all grew up doodling and seeing something so familiar doesn’t ring any bells, i.e., we don’t feel like we’re being ‘sold’ something.

Here’s a whiteboard example:

Whitebaords are typically produced in 1 of 4 ways, though this is more detail than you need to know:

  • The artist creates static art (or you can even use clipart for really low-end/budget animations) that you can animate using a DIY tool (covered previously) or by using an ‘unmasking’ (= revealing) technique available in many animation software packages.
  • The artist creates layered art files and then screen-records while ‘erasing’ them, which gives the same effect as if someone is actually drawing it.
  • The artist screen-records while drawing on a tablet, and then the animator speeds up the drawing and adds a ‘hand’ that follows the artist’s motion.
  • The artist draws ‘live’ on a whiteboard and a camera-person video-tapes everything (this is technically a video and not an animation, and it’s the most expensive way to produce a whiteboard, if you want to do it right).

There are also some more cost-effective hand-drawn styles reminiscent of traditional whiteboards.  At Board Studios Labs, we’re constantly developing new styles that are either more cost-effective or more impactful.

Here’s an example of our ‘sketchnote’ videos, which we use to tell corporate stories, explain technology, and for book video summaries (this is for our side project, Book Video Club – check out free summaries on our YouTube channel).


Motion graphics animation: Here you don’t see a ‘hand’ drawing.  You have vibrant colors, simple 2D motions, and cool transitions to keep the viewer interesting.  Attention to detail can delight the viewer and keep attention longer (like seeing fluid motion for the steam from a cup of coffee).  You should expect to pay $4-10K for a 1-1.5 minute animation.

These are more ‘polished’ videos so your audience will feel immediately that they’re being sold.  These videos also aren’t ideal for explaining complex ideas, not as good as whiteboards.  But they can fit a brand’s styling better, whereas whiteboards can feel out of place sometimes.

Here’s a motion graphics example, a video we produced for Alibaba:


You can also have 3D animations but those take much longer to produce and have much higher budgets.  The big issue is that 3D animations need a lot of time to render so making changes can be a challenge.  Imagine that rendering a 5-second sequence can take an entire day!

Here’s an example of a 3D animation we produced a while back:


Live-action / actor-based video: These videos are the closest to traditional TV Ads.  They range widely in terms of quality and budgets.  They typically require one or more actors on camera (or they can be done on a client’s location and show the founder or staff), a crew to operate the camera(s), lights and sound, a studio or other location, and editing or post-production to bring everything together.

You should expect to pay anywhere from $500 for a solo videographer to shoot and edit for a half-day to upwards of $20K depending on the on-screen talent, size of the team, etc.

These videos are great for creating an emotional connection with the audience or going viral.  They can be fun, especially when they understand deeply their audience and pain point, like the latest Adobe commercials or the well-known Dollar Shave Club and Poo-pourri ads.  These ads were so effective that are credited for essentially building an entire business (DSC was sold for $1 billion to Unilever in 2016).

In their simplest form, you have a static camera (no movement) pointing to an actor waist-up talking.  These are the so-called ‘talking head’ videos and are of course the cheapest and least effective.  Still, they’re often considered a step up from animation (especially when done right, because you can get a talking head on fiverr but it won’t help your brand much).

A more complex video has multiple actors, walking around a space with a camera following them around, graphic overlays, and a strong-fun script for the audience to engage.

Here’s an example of a video we produced for Alibaba:

These videos can cost from $15K all the way up to $100K.  The difference in price though is often not in quality and can have more to do with the agency’s own brand and positioning (meaning, you can get something very close at a fraction of the cost sometimes).


What video styles to avoid?

Whiteboard and motion graphics animations are here to stay.  They’re not a fad by any stretch.  Because they’re a very cost-effective way to communicate.

People’s attention spans are shrinking (here’s what you can do about this problem), and practically nobody reads your website copy or white papers anymore, so your only real option to engage your audience is through video.  And animation is the cheaper younger brother of video.

Nevertheless, we’ve been growing more used to them, so sometimes they can feel a bit “tired”. We’ve heard from people who think that “whiteboards are dead” or “motion graphics are played out”.  That’s because

  1. a) they’re being subjective, and
  2. b) unfortunately, there are many low-quality production houses out there.

You can get a low-budget animation done by freelancers, and it will suffer in terms of script / message and overall production quality.  Since these are cheap videos, more people can afford them and put them on their sites and on YouTube.  They don’t do their brand any favour, but when budgets are tight this may be the only option.

When people say that they don’t like a particular video or animation style it’s because they’ve seen bad examples of it.  But when they see a proper example they’re always engaged (assuming of course you have the right message and audience, right?)

If you see a lot of poorly made videos, naturally you’ll grow weary of the style.

However, I challenge anyone to watch our Whiteboards and not say that they’re at least one step above anything else they’ve ever seen.  The only exception are the very intricate RSA videos (especially the original ones like the one below from 7 years ago), which is what inspired us to get into this business in the first place!

The bottom line?

Whiteboards and motion graphics are GREAT communication vehicles, when done right.  In fact, you can stand out even more because many will tell you “I’ve seen many whiteboards before, but nothing as cool as YOURS!”

How to think about video

Start with your goal, why you need a video.  What’s the value of having the right video, more conversions, a shorter sales cycle, higher employee participation rate, smoother customer on-boarding and retention, a better-trained or more effective sales force?

Now, you can determine your budget based on a cost-benefit analysis based on your goal and desired results from above.  If you want to build a brand and can afford a $1 million campaign, you will want the right video behind it.  You don’t want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.  The right video will give you the best ROI on your campaign budget.

Conversely, if it’s an internal video, maybe you want to increase employee participation in your 401K plan.  Talk to an agency that can share a case study in the area so you can assess the potential return.  If you can raise an additional $100 million in your 401K, what’s your profit?  That will help you think about what you can spend on getting the right video.

And finally, based on your budget, you can narrow down your options in terms of video/animation style and production agency.

Your goals and expected results will determine your budget, which will help you narrow down your options.

The shortcut to this entire process? 

Schedule a free consultation with one of our experts and we’ll guide you through the goals -> budget -> options.

There’s no obligation whatsoever.  We’re a boutique agency that doesn’t do everything but we can help you wrap your head around all the options, and you can go from there.


Tess is a Business Development Associate at Board Studios Inc, an animation production agency that helps B2B companies simplify and communicate more effectively. She's passionate about B2B business models & marketing, and spends a lot of time working on partnership development, content marketing, and scouring for the best business books for Her blood type is an authentic caffè macchiato.

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