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Storytelling Connects With Donors and Grassroots Supporters

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In philanthropy, the saying is that people give to people, not causes. Connecting at the level of hearts and minds has always been critical to building long-term relationships with donors, and also with grassroots supporters. And the best way to do that is through storytelling.  Now that YouTube and other Web 2.0 tools are giving so many nonprofits a “channel” for their stories, personal narrative is being rediscovered.  But to tell a compelling story requires critical elements.

What makes a compelling story about mission?

1.       Focus on outcomes. Everyone loves a success story. Reality TV is filled with them: obese person becomes thinner, aspiring chef wins the prize, talented singer gets a record deal.  Think of the success stories in your organization, but instead of listing them as bullet-points, express them through anecdotal stories.

2.       Focus on people. The people who make it happen and the people whose lives are changed. Who are the teachers who made a difference in students lives? What are those students doing today? Who is the volunteer who went into a community and changed it for the better? What is happening in that neighborhood now? What would have happened to that child without a medical intervention paid for by others? What kind of life does this child have today?  Interview-driven narratives are highly successful at building the case for donors and volunteers.

3.       Show why your organization matters. Somewhere in the narrative, you need to show viewers why your organization made a tangible difference in the outcome.  It wasn’t just random acts of kindness that led to this success. It was your people, your dedication, your/their dollars at work.

4.       Engage viewers in their own narrative. Make sure there is a call to action somewhere in your story, usually at the very end. “How can you make a difference just like Alice did?”  “With just 20 cents per day, you can change the life of a child like Shawn.” “Join us at our XYZ event to make your voice heard.”  Think about what story viewers want to create for themselves after watching yours.

5.       Provide follow-up options. If a viewer is moved by your narrative, they should easily be able to click somewhere next to the video or case study to do something–sign up for the conference, make a donation, become a member.  Despite the tendency to want sheer numbers—hey, our video got 20,000 views!—you really want qualified viewers. You also want the video to be the entrance point to engage them with other content, either on your web page, Facebook page, etc.  So be sure you provide that option in your web video interface.

Telling and hearing stories is our oldest human instinct. Web 2.0 just makes it easier to share.

Getting the Most out of Video

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YouTube is now the number two search engine, after Google. What does that mean for those involved in fundraising, marketing and branding? That people are searching for videos about your people and your organization, not just looking for written content.  So in 2011, you may need to be ramping up your video presence on the web.

What do you need to know about video content best practices?

After having produced hundreds of videos for advocacy, motivation, education and marketing, here are my Ten Commandments of Video Content (OK, really only 7 because 10 is just too long for a blog post):

1.  Know Thy Brand. If you are a 100-year-old institution, you may have a great (and lengthy) brand story. What part of it makes sense to tell through video? Who are the voices that can best evoke your essence? If you’re a new group, do you need to establish some gravitas? How do you do that without being staid? Knowing your brand will help define your creative approach—the most important element in your video toolkit.

2.  Know Thy Target Audience. What compels your prospective audience? How old are they and what is their predisposition towards your subject matter? (translation: how long will watch your video before bailing?) If you don’t spend some time thinking about your audience, and better yet getting to know them through surveys, focus groups and face-to-face contact, you can waste a lot of time and money on video that doesn’t connect.

3.  Know Thy Goals. “To create a really great web video” doesn’t count as a goal! Are you trying to generate support for a fundraising campaign? Promote a new program or initiative? Let people know about a new product or service? Give a window into your people or your operations?  Each type of goal requires a different creative and technical approach, from camera selection to list of interviewees.

4.  Know Thy Technology. I like to shoot in 16×9 Hi-Def whenever possible with cameras that record to P2 cards rather than tape, to avoid lengthy digitizing sessions and ensure great-looking images. Although I recently became enamored of the new DSLR option to shoot video and LOVE the way it looks and feels. [For techies—the Canon 5DMKII with the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens] If you didn’t acquire hi-res or render your animations in the right way, you will have pixilated, crummy-looking video on any size screen—and often you end up wanting to use web video in a live event context where image quality really matters. Viewers are sophisticated, and this has an impact on their perception of your brand or their consumption of your content.

5.  Know Thy Budget. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked to produce a proposal without knowing the client’s budget. This is a waste of time for everyone. Consider this analogy. Would you go to a realtor and say “I’d like to see some houses” and not tell him/her what your price range is? You might see some mansions but not be able to buy any of them. Or, you’ll walk through homes without any of the features you want and need. Figure out what you want to spend not just based on a budget line-item but the cost-per-view or cost-per-acquisition you are willing to pay.  Then your vendors can give you a fair assessment of the best bang for your buck, both technically and creatively.

6.  Know Thy Downstream Uses. If you plan right, you can multi-purpose your raw content for other projects. If you don’t, you can’t.  Most of my projects for return clients use anywhere from 25% to 80% recycled content, but that’s because we’ve discussed in advance asking alternate questions of interviewees, shooting additional b-roll in a particular location, and produced alternate graphics options.

7.  Measure Impact. How are you rolling out your video? Can you offer sneak previews to a live audience so they can help you promote it online? How will you measure the effectiveness of your project?  How are you driving traffic to it? Who are you enlisting to drive the traffic there? (more in a future post on helping your staff and board use social media to do this).