Animoto Wants to Make You Cry

Xconomy San Francisco — 

When Animoto hit the scene in 2007, its creators thought bands and their teenage fans would want to use the tool to make videos for their MySpace pages.

How times have changed. Animoto’s basic features are still the same: the software grabs photos and video clips from your computer or smartphone and renders them into slick videos, synchronized with music, that you can share on the Web. But now, there are plenty of free tools that Gen-Y types can use to create and sharing video—from Vine to Socialcam to Snapchat to Video on Instagram. It turns out that the most important customers for Animoto are people with a few more years under their belts, and a few more dollars in their purses or wallets.

The company has nicknamed its key demographic target the “chief memory officer.” That’s “the person in the household who is primarily responsible for taking photos, sharing them, making sure they’re stored safely, and creating derivative works with them,” says Animoto co-founder and CEO Brad Jefferson.

The chief memory officer is equally likely to be the mom or the dad in a family, Jefferson says. But either way, they don’t arrive at Animoto with the expectation that all media sharing tools should be free—and so far 140,000 of them have been willing to sign up for memberships, paying anywhere from $5 per month to $499 per year (for the highest-end professional version of the service).

Thanks to those membership fees, Animoto has been cash-flow positive for years, unlike many other startups in the media sharing and photo storage market. “It was important to recognize who we are,” Jefferson says today. “We are trying to help you create a treasure chest, a time capsule of life’s most important memories that you can share with friends and reflect over. It’s people who are willing to spend money on that who are our best customers.”

Here at Xconomy, we’ve been following Animoto for a long while. Jefferson and his co-founders Stevie Clifton, Tom Clifton, and Jason Hsiao came out of the Seattle startup scene, and between 2007 and 2011 they raised $30 million from investors like Madrona,, Spectrum, and SoftTech VC. Today the company has 60 employees spread across offices in New York and San Francisco, and has expanded beyond its initial consumer focus to offer video creation services to small- and medium-sized businesses as well (think wedding photographers and restaurants who want to put professional-looking videos on their websites). The company’s nearly 8 million registered users (up from 5 million a year ago) create a million new videos every month. Animoto doesn’t handle any of the rendering on its own—it was one of the first startups to outsource nearly all of its computing workload to Amazon Web Services, back when the idea of the cloud was still new.

But while Animoto’s story is interesting from technology-and-business angle, the real key to the company’s success may be something we haven’t talked about before: the emotional experiences it provides for users.

There are few better ways to share memories and bond with friends or family members than to sit down with an old photo album and pore over it together. But most photos today are born digital, and the majority are never printed. For the first few generations of photo-related tools on the Web, job one was simply getting photos onto the Web, where they could be shared. Curation and presentation took a distant back seat.

Animoto is fixing that, using some digital fireworks to revive the spirit of the old family album. At its core, it’s a tool for storytelling, where the narrative emerges from the sequence of photos and video clips the user chooses. But the final package is more sophisticated and professional-looking than anything most consumers could create at home.

Whether you’re using Animoto’s Web tools or its iPhone or Android apps, you start by choosing the images you want to share, arranging them in the order you want, picking one of Animoto’s signature presentation styles, choosing a musical track, and adding optional captions. Then you let the company’s cloud-based software marry it all together. In the final video, your own images are front and center, but they’re enhanced by subtle zooming, panning, and filters, and they float amidst attractive motion graphics developed by Animoto’s in-house designers.

Each of Animoto’s 60 styles is carefully calculated to resonate with viewers on an emotional level. The “I Love NY” style superimposes your photos on scenes from New York, as if you’d gone out and bought ads on billboards and bus stops around the city. “Retro Wheel” mimics an old Viewmaster. “Watercolor Seashore” looks like a handmade greeting card. “Super 8” looks like a 1950s home movie, and “The Arena” has CGI effects that make it look like the introduction to an ESPN sports program.

The overall effect of an Animoto video is just as compelling as flipping through a photo album—maybe even more so. “Something in ones and zeroes can have an even better emotional connection than a tangible good,” Jefferson argues. “We are really trying to make you cry. We are trying to evoke a powerful emotion.”

It’s easier to show it than explain it. Here’s an video I made using iPhone photos from a family vacation in Michigan this summer, using a style Animoto calls “Rustic.”

Animoto has built its user base partly through partnerships with photo-sharing services that want to give their own users better ways to repurpose their photos. Its biggest partnership is with Shutterfly, which labels the service “Videogram, powered by Animoto” and charges $4 to $10 per video, depending on the desired resolution.

But it turns out that businesses like Animoto’s styles too. Realtors use the service to showcase properties. Restaurants show popular dishes. Small businesses build product demos and video holiday cards. Professional photographers create animated portfolios for their websites.

Sometimes businesses like the high-energy styles such as “The Arena,” and other times they want understated, minimalist styles that will highlight their content. In this vein, Animoto worked with a portrait photographer named Tamara Lackey to create a bright style called “Innocence” that consists mostly of Ken Burns zooms on a white background with fade-to-white transitions. “This one is calming, but we also want to be able to get you excited,” Jefferson says. “We should be able to tap into the range of emotions.”

Animoto will “keep pushing the innovation envelope,” Jefferson says, coming up with new styles that take advantage of the latest trends in motion-graphics design. It also wants to do more to help users with the work that comes before and after the actual creation a video—what a commercial studio would call pre-production, post-production, and distribution.

That might mean providing tools that make it easier to gather, review, and select source materials for videos. It might also mean making it easier for users to share Animoto videos and measure who’s watching them. “Where we are really good right now is in the creation part, but where we need to help consumers and businesses is with the other pieces,” Jefferson says. “We feel like we have to own the whole value chain.”

I’ll check back with Animoto in a year or two and let you know how much progress they’ve made.

The following is a selection of videos created by Animoto’s business users.






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One response to “Animoto Wants to Make You Cry”

  1. Create Online Video says:

    Emotional connection would definitely explain why Animoto is so popular for home movie editing. When it comes to commercial video, though, I think is a better way to go.