Animation is a $250 billion a year industry that, despite its heavy use of technology, has remained surprisingly hidebound when developing their core product: Branded character-based intellectual property.

A Disney movie, for example, typically takes years to make and, though the studio exposes character brands to test audiences, the content sometimes falls flat. (Anyone remember "Treasure Planet"?) Similarly, an animated television series typically takes many months to develop, but it's not until the first season is distributed that the studio knows whether the character will capture an audience.

In addition to development costs, launching a new character brand entails a significant marketing investment, to ensure all that development investment isn't in vain. The upfront costs are the reason so many animated properties are built upon preexisting intellectual property (think "Duck Tails" or "Lower Decks"), while truly original programming, like "Rick and Morty," remains relatively rare.

Enter social media.

You'd think that YouTube would change that equation, making it possible to bypass the expense of marketing and distribution. But you'd be wrong.

While some animated character brands have been launched on YouTube ("Baman and Piderman" comes to mind), YouTube is designed around a "shows on channels" model, a packaging concept that's almost a century old.

By contrast, newer social media products, like TikTok and Instagram, are personality-centric. Because they ask the audience to track an individual's life through pictures and video, they are uniquely suited for the development and testing of animated character brands.

BuzzFeed's Animation Lab is a case in point. Over the past four years, the lab has test-launched over 30 branded characters on Instagram and has expanded into TikTok, winnowing them down to four genuine hits: Weird Helga (@weirdhelga), the Good Advice Cupcake (@thegoodadvicecupcake), the Land of Boggs (@TheLandofBoggs), and Chikn Nuggit (@chikn.nuggit).

The Lab's four branded characters have more than 17 million followers, with many of their TikTok shorts receiving millions of views. The lab's newest, @chikn.nuggit, launched solely on TikTok, and has amazingly achieved two million followers in less than nine months. "Our animations are getting larger TikTok numbers than any other BuzzFeed content," says executive producer Jun Zee Myers.

Creating the business case.

Myers, who oversees the Lab, is an industry veteran who got her start in animation working in commercials and television and then moved into visual and special effects, working on top-tier properties like Game of Thrones, X-Men: First Class, and the Planet of the Apes movies.

According to Myers, there are four reasons why test-bedding character content on social media is cheaper and more effective than the traditional process:

  1. Minimal upfront costs. Creating a handful of 10-second short videos (i.e. enough to test a character's appeal) takes a tiny fraction of the time and money required to develop a tradition pilot.
  2. Early-stage revenue. Rather than waiting years for a payoff, an animator can earn money from the get-go with branded merchandise like stickers, books, and calendars, as well as branded content partnerships and sponsorships.
  3. Instant audience testing. The team can tell within a few weeks whether a character has enough appeal to capture a targeted demographic, and then tune the content (based on responses) to have greater appeal.
  4. IP ownership. Rather than building on existing intellectual property for which the Lab would need to pay licensing fees, the Lab can develop its own intellectual property, which can generate licensing revenue.

The value of community.

While YouTube (for example) treats comments as an afterthought. TikTok and Instagram encourage community interaction, not only between followers, but between followers and the characters themselves. In TikTok, for example, an audience member can create and post a split screen, with themselves on one side and the original video on the other.

Followers can also chat with and interact with the characters (i.e. the writer speaking in the character's voice) inside the comments. The environment encourages followers to become "invested in the account," as it's called in TikTok culture.

Thus, when Myers and her team pitch their characters to, say, Netflix, they enter the meeting armed with content that has already earned millions of super fans, who can be counted upon to become consumers of the longer-format content and evangelize to their online and real-world peer groups. This vastly reduces and even eliminates the risk of market failure before the studio makes a large upfront investment.

The biggest challenge that Myers is likely to face when selling the Lab's characters to traditional studios is that Hollywood barely seems to know how to effectively use old-style social media, like Facebook and Twitter. For most studio executives, I suspect that TikTok is as foreign and impenetrable as their teenage daughters' social lives.