One of the main challenges for a digital team at a charity is how to reach people. How do you get your story out there?
As an organisation that produces content as its bread and butter, one of the main things we think about is how to create content that matters and that can cut through. This is no easy feat when you consider that we live in a world of information overload. 90% of all the data that existed in 2018 was created in just the previous two years, so fast is the rate at which people create information. And that rate is only accelerating. Today, there are a lot of things out there for people to pay attention to, from a Facebook post to the news on the BBC, to watching something on Netflix. Why should they listen to what you have to say?
At Storythings we work with a range of clients, including corporates, nonprofits and government departments, who all work on interesting social or civic problems. Here, I’ll lay out our philosophy and experience of storytelling, which will hopefully help you make decisions about what to include in your campaign or organisational communications, and in what form.
Design for behaviours
We design for behaviours first, then audiences. It’s common, when designing communications, to focus on the audience you want to reach. You might say that this is young people aged 18-34 or parents from 25-45.
But you miss a crucial first step: what do you want them to do? This is important because people aren’t easily defined - a single parent homeschooling while trying to hold down a job might technically be in the same ‘parent’ category as a millionaire parent who has hired help to keep their children occupied all day long. But their behaviours will differ significantly, as will their response to the same kind of content.
That’s why we strongly believe that what people do with the stories we create is as important as the story itself. Think about what impact you want to have with what you want to say first: do you want people to sign a petition, turn up at a rally, listen to some audio content, watch a video, share a digital poster, sign up to a course, or donate money to a cause? Each of these actions will necessitate a different approach to content. Understanding what motivates advanced audience behaviour and participation through media is the first step on the journey towards understanding what kind of stories need to be told.
On the edtech podcast we produced for Pearson, Nevertheless, one of the ways we hoped to encourage girls into STEM subjects was to give teachers stories to inspire their students. We helped them do this by creating eight beautifully designed STEM role model posters to put up in their classrooms. The posters were downloaded over a million times. On the other hand, for The Great American Read, a year-long project by PBS in America to find the most-loved book in the country, the behaviour was to get people talking about books. So a PBS book group was set up on Facebook specifically for the show – it now has 66,000 active members years after the show aired. At its peak, while the show was running, it had over 90,000 members.
You probably have your audience already defined if you’re thinking about communicating with them. But the next thing to think about is the context in which they will come across your work. Will they be commuting or travelling (in a post-Covid world of course!)? Will they be relaxing at home after a day’s work, or perhaps they’re in their home office or office? Are they checking their email on their phone, or listening to a podcast as they walk the dog?
The media engagement habits of your particular audience, and the mindset they might be in, will determine what format your story will take - whether it’s a podcast, animated video, documentary film, comic, poster, a long editorial read, an online magazine, or something else.
Story format and production
Once you have identified the behaviour you’d like to see from your audience, and researched the context in which they might engage with you, you can move on to defining the format that would best suit, and also the kinds of stories you’d like to tell.
For author Steven Johnson’s book ‘How We Got To Now’ and accompanying TV series, we were challenged to change how people think about innovation (behaviour). We thought about marginalised communities (audience segments) whose innovation stories were not being told and were therefore likely to be interesting to a wider audience who were perhaps used to more easily accessible stories of innovation.
We then looked at how these communities were telling, receiving and sharing their stories (the context) and discovered it was longform deep dives into subjects – often alone, but occasionally in learning environments. They valued content as a resource to spark further learning (formats). With this knowledge, we launched How We Get To Next, a digital magazine that published stories in multiple formats, including episodic series for deeper understanding of a subject, and short reading lists that would be shared in an educational or work environment.
It is easy to jump to focussing on a format of choice based on what is popular right now (‘what TikTok videos should I produce’?), but it is much more important - and prudent - to start with the groundwork. We like to do this in a workshop with the client, whether just an internal one or with an external partner. We break down what needs to be achieved, where your audience will most likely respond to you, and what stories you have to hand. This is all before producing anything. This is a mistake we see a lot of organisations make - starting to produce content too quickly, before they know what it’s for.
Common Communications Formats
At Storythings, we work across a range of formats. Here are some of the most common, in no particular order:
Podcasts: If what you’d like to achieve is immediate mass reach, then podcasts are not your best option. There are currently 1.75 million podcasts, which collectively have published over 43 million episodes. An average podcast gets only around 141 downloads in the first 30 days, and to be in the top 5%, you need at least 9000 downloads in that period. That’s a tough ask.
Podcasts are a good choice when you have a subject you’d like to explore over a longer period of time, like Serial, the one that kickstarted the popularity of podcasts back in 2014; or if you have large networks of experts you can tap into, like we did with Nevertheless. They’re particularly good to reach niche audiences, particularly more educated and affluent demographics, who form a bulk of the podcast listening audience.
To give a podcast the best chance of success, think about all the resources you have to hand as an organisation, from talent (if you have talent in-house it will eliminate the need to pay a host, for example), to networks (which makes finding interviewees easier). Start with a workshop to tease out what formats you can use that stand apart from the standard interview format such as where big brands have celebrities interviewing celebrities, a space that is often hard to stand out in. An alternative is something like Go With Me On This, an education debate podcast Storythings produced for Pearson, where two education experts had to bring three or four other participants round to their way of thinking.
Video: There are many forms video can take like animation, documentary, and even audio narrative in a visual format.
Animation: Producing a good animated video can be expensive as there is a lot of talent and skill involved in making even a two-minute animation; the longer the animation, the more expensive it will be. However, it is a great way to use creativity to make a mark and get a message across.
Apart from the actual production, animation needs a frame-by-frame script signed off beforehand (it gets expensive to make changes once production is underway). We used animation to produce these short videos based on research conducted on digital identities and financial inclusion in India. It was a particularly useful way of providing anonymity to the interviewees who were talking about sensitive subjects and needed their identities protected for fear of government retaliation.
Documentary: Documentary film is great when you have a talented film crew on the ground getting the right shots and B-roll to put together, along with editors to assemble the final piece. We worked with some very skilled journalists and filmmakers on short documentary films for Experian about financial inclusion and identity in Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. It is a very heartwarming way of bringing a community’s stories to life.
Documentary film as a format works particularly well when you have filming permission (some situations make this hard, in which case other formats might work better) and have good access to the protagonists of a story. But steer clear of common tropes that non-profits often use, such as the tear-jerking fundraising video, as it is often hard for people to remember the brand when so many organisations’ visuals look similar.
Audio narrative in a visual format: Though animation and documentary are the more popular types of video formats used, we’ve also experimented with using background audio recorded on location, combined with original photography, and stitched into a video. This is again useful when you’d like to maintain some amount of anonymity for the protagonists, and is not as expensive as animation to create. Here’s something we made about an interviewee in India in the aforementioned research project on identities.
Long-form editorial: We produced the online editorial magazine How We Get To Next for five years, and are currently producing another one for a finance client. This format makes sense when you can commit to showcasing content on a branded platform that you plan to own and fund for at least a few years; to build brand recognition, accumulate a strong body of stories, and get the benefit of SEO. Building a long-form editorial publication requires assembling a top-notch editorial team and having a good commissioning budget. Within that, it is also important to think about how you can experiment with formats. An online publication does not need to be text-heavy. You can commission data visualisation, graphic art, photography, and smaller animations as part of your storytelling journey.
There are also other interesting formats to consider - like graphic comics, which we used for a Nesta project about Artificial Intelligence, and a more involved microsite for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which converted an academic piece of research on climate technologies into a more readable long-form piece, including videos, photos, and interview quotes.
In the end, to make communications that truly cut through, make sure you place the people whose stories you’re telling front and centre (we like to say ‘protagonists, not subjects’, as the latter indicates something happening to them versus them being in control of what is happening). And take the time to do the groundwork on the stories you’d like to talk about beforehand. There is skill in finding the most relevant and timely ones from a communications perspective.
This way you can wind up making culture, not just comms.
Image credit: Will Morris for Storythings / Nesta