How to produce fast, cheap and awesome social content

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Quality doesn't have to be sacrificed to the pace and price of social media, writes the founder of Undefined Creative.

Earlier this year, I attended a panel on growing a YouTube following. The conversation centered on close monitoring of audience engagement for successful posts and immediate production of related content. Since monetizing a nascent YouTube project is difficult and production costs can kill a budding creator, the obvious takeaway was: produce fast and cheap.

The speakers were industry pros who weren't strangers to the old production mantra: "Good, fast, cheap: pick two out of three." And, they themselves weren't budding creators, but a successful operation going to great lengths not to skimp on visual appeal. Yet, by not explicitly addressing quality, they reaffirmed a prevalent belief that "good" must be sacrificed to the pace and price of social media.

I disagree. 

My own career began in 1999, in post-production. A list of graphic animation needs often landed on my desk at 9 a.m., and by 5 p.m. the show was laid off to tape and rushed with FedEx, or, in desperate times, private messenger. The instability of operating systems and software meant things often went wrong. Fast, cheap and good was a two-out-of-three proposition because all three were simply near impossible to accomplish. But, it's no longer 1999.

I believe it's time to redefine this trio, in the context of 2016. 

"Fast" means ability to meet tight deadlines. This requires understanding the entire process and planning ahead accordingly, two qualifiers directly related to professional experience. How fast is "fast" is a formula that combines scope of work and the proposed deadline (and all other current workloads) to outline realistic expectations, with each production studio defining its own "too fast." And while a studio commits to delivering on agreed terms, it's the client's responsibility to retain a vendor and provide all materials timely.

"Cheap" doesn't mean paying a kid with a camera $200 to shoot and edit "viral looking content," but fair pricing on both sides. For the client, it's taking into account the on-demand nature of the work and the overtime/additional personnel hours required. For the vendor, it's acknowledging the overall scope of the job in determining profit margins.

Finally, "good" refers to solidly designed, well-produced pieces, not production embarrassments. This requires real designers, shooters, editors—people actually trained in the art of creating things. That's right, content creation is an art form. Becoming good takes years and experience can't be replaced by passable equipment and a Creative Suite subscription.

"Fast, cheap and good" can come together in agreement today simply because current technology, when combined with talent, easily allows it. The secret? Strategic thinking, plus the right team, vendor and client-side.

Here are several key things to consider:

Identify all probable scenarios. Before we create a single key frame, we dissect and organize every script variation the client can predict. We collect all content, including logos, photos and music. We stick to a look that's distinct for brand recognition, and flexible for versioning and special touches. We cluster content segments and build animation templates, preapproving them with all parties. Everyone involved, whether client or vendor, is assigned specific responsibilities: research, approvals, quality control, distribution. Lists of contacts, much like production call sheets, keep communication efficient.

Fast doesn't happen without a ton of preproduction, and production speed can't be maintained without experienced producers at the helm to rein in the project.

Fight the impulse to overstaff. It's important to recognize that quantity doesn't always lead to better quality, and more people often equals more managing needs. We've produced 20-plus minutes of original, completely animated content with just two animators and a producer in one (very long) day. Despite the overtime bill, our low-personnel strategy still saved our client money and minimized mistakes.

The irreplaceable components of "good" are top-notch, experienced designers and animators. The factor that transforms "good" into awesome, plus fast, is consistency. While it's more expensive on paper to keep your best people tied up in production, in reality, it can cost you way more in stress, client satisfaction and project management to expect lower-level production artists to execute well under pressure.

Budget to scope rather than deliverables. This can make a big difference to both the vendor and the client—it's where the three components really gel together. Pinning down a wide range of possibilities requires multiple estimates and a mess of negotiations, wasting time and human resources along the entire production schedule. Transparency and trust simplify everything, from bidding to delivery.

Without needing a list of precise deliverables upfront, the retainer structure lets a client adjust as events demand. It allows a vendor to better manage margins, producing faster, with greater ability to accommodate changes and special requests. While the retainer model is a commitment many clients avoid, I'd argue it's precisely what's required for high-volume and high-quality content.

Educate clients. Even if we have a great, established relationship with the client, we take the time to convey all three points above to the entire team on the job. Every person directly involved should understand how we're making this project great, as one big team.

If your clients aren't 110% onboard with what's required to deliver their ideal campaign, even two out of three may be a long shot. Delays in approvals, lack of organization and process, or constantly changing points-of-contact can undermine your best efforts and derail the entire job. While this could potentially be the biggest hurdle, all time spent building a real partnership with the client-side team is time well spent.

How do I know this strategy works? Experience.

Undeniably, it is difficult to focus on quality within the turnaround times of social media. But, creating for social isn't so unlike creating for broadcast programming. While social doesn't require the same production level, it's not impossible to set the bar much higher than typical. It's more of a recipe: Commitment to teamwork between clients and vendors. Communication and critical thinking on all sides. And lots of preparation to build shortcuts into production that don't wind up looking like shortcuts in results. That's how you get fast, cheap and awesome.

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