Monday, December 26, 2005


Animations sprouting up everywhere

Song/animations for issue campaigns have sprung up everywhere, and nowhere more commonly than at Consumers Union where we enjoyed huge success with "The Drugs I Need," followed by more cautionary results with subsequent projects.

Bits of the recent landscape in quick review: to fight less restrictive gun laws, the Brady Campaign gives us the Shoot First campaign cartoon; those clever guys at JibJab created a year-in-review starring G.W. Bush; Arianna Huffington's race for governor brought us this hybrid car race; the still circulating and frightening ACLU "pizza order" database video; and if you've a yen for better health insurance, there's Pig People from Outer Space (PPOs) from the California based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. For a comprehensive (and impressive) list of political animations and videos (some to encourage direct action and others just for fun), visit Daniel Kurtzman here.

Consumers Union produced three more animations in 2005 after the startling success of our first effort, "The Drugs I Need." Unfortunately, I didn't really know why it was such a success. Maybe the lyrics were great, or the timing was especially good, or the special smarmy sweetness of the animated pill perfectly accentuated the musical jokes. Maybe it was all about the email that Jib Jab sent because the JibJab brothers just thought it was that funny. An estimated two million people have now seen "The Drugs I Need" and many thousands came to our website and opted in to get our email. The animation worked as publicity and it worked to recruit new activists. It was cost effective and continues to amuse and spread--albeit much more slowly--months after the launch. Maybe it was a formula that could be replicated, or maybe not, but we had to try.

The next animation ("The Tower") launched in the fall, spreading more sluggishly and to far fewer people. Several things were different, and some of the differences might have been avoided had I known their importance. I went back to our original creative team, and the Lizards once again gave us a funny, politically astute song covering the far less concrete issue of media consolidation with aplomb. However, the song ran nearly three minutes--quite long for an online animation. We released the animation, but no other group stepped up to augment our own email announcement with emails to other lists so we didn't see the kind of focused traffic we expect with that extra email support. After a bit, we advertised on AtomFilm, a big video site, but didn't see much crossover to our own action site and our own list. The initial release was disappointing, although it still got our message out to tens of thousands of viewers and brought them to where they could see all the work we do on telecommunications topics.

We produced the third animation for our Prop 79 campaign effort (a California ballot initiative to lower prescription drug prices). Originally I hoped that this animation would help us recruit people to the campaign site, but the project took far longer to complete than expected. Our entire electoral effort online lasted just over two months. The animation was complete in time only to promote our final GOTV "forwarding" appeals.

In the final days before election day, the most important work our online supporters could do was foward key information about Prop 79 to everyone in their address books. To test the animation's effectiveness, we sent three different "forwarding" messages to our list: a "straight" appeal describing the importance of forwarding and listing the key information, a funny "Top Ten" message about Pharma, and the animation link with a request to forward it along with the key information. The animation out performed other messages in our test segments by about 20%. The difference was significant but certainly not worth the expense of the project. We could have spent that money on direct, paid email messaging and reached more individual voters.

The final project--"It's Always Christmas Time (for Visa)!"--has been the most successful effort since the first, but it has not yet reached the national consciousness. Since Christmas will be back (those predicting its near demise are apparently wrong for another year) we will likely bring this campaign back for another holiday effort if credit card legislation doesn't pass in 2006.

Since this one wasn't a blockbuster either, we have had to figure out how to measure our success and determine how good is good enough and what worked better in this case than the others. First, the issue had holiday appeal--something that I think is increasingly important as we try to effectively get our message out year round. Second, we created a special website for the animation with key information about credit card issues--enough to support the action and engage the curious but not too much. Third, we did heavy promotion to bloggers. This feels a lot like going begging (more on this for another post). Fourth, when we didn't get committments from other nonprofits to send email to their members, we added a very small email ad buy and it "hit" strongly, resulting in both blog posts and direct traffic to the animation. Finally, we saw our greatest success with the Christmas card people could send from the "thank you" screen. This campaign is not quite over, but I expect that we will decide that the online recruitment was costly but not too costly (under $3.00 a name is my goal, but only our first project achieved that goal), the publicity was very good, and the campaign was fun for our activists. Clearly, campaigning around Christmas themes with a Christmas song can work, at least during that holiday window from Thanksgiving to the New Year.

So after all this, what exactly have we learned? These are very risky projects. They cost between $10,000 and $15,000 depending on the talent, the type of animation, the length of the piece and other factors. It's important to decide in advance what yardstick you want to use to measure success, and whether there are more cost effective ways to achieve your goals. For recruitment, these projects can be very expensive indeed. If the action you ask people to take is compelling and interesting, we've seen people take action at rates as high as 38% of animation views. If the opt-in is easy, we've seen new recruitment rates at around 5% of animation views (much lower conversion rates with the most successful project that reached a really large, non-activist audience) and if your campaign is compelling over time, the new people stay on the list almost as well as people recruited in other ways. But a 5% new recruitment rate means that your cost of acquisition is relatively high unless you go truely "viral." That's the risk. It may, but most likely it will not.

These days, political animations are a cottage industry. There are so many out there, that I feel sure many people are learning some of the same hard lessons that I've learned, and I hope they will chime in here and pass on their own experience.

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