Too much content. Too few storytellers.

The internet and social media disrupt the relationship between story and how we understand the world around us.

The other day I wrote this about storytelling and content strategy in a project brief for a potential client:

The candidate (or party, group, movement, government) who controls the narrative has an inside track on guiding people’s hearts, minds and passions. Even when people, on the whole, don’t believe in the narrative they often go along with what’s dominant and speaks to their basic needs.

Content strategy is simply the combination of actions that identify, deliver, market, test and measure narrative to achieve an impact on (or by) people in the audience. In a campaign, content strategy is woven together with communications, data, fundraising, events, storytelling and (most of all) organizing to connect people with powerful narratives and each other.

Simply having a compelling message is a necessary but insufficient condition for winning a campaign or sustaining a movement. Crafting a narrative with stories, data, and actions gives people hooks that connect a theory of change to their own experience. The narrative creates a route map. Like handholds and cracks on a climbing wall, we reach for stories to make sense the path forward (or up, if you like the climbing metaphor).

Content strategy is what ties it all together. It bolts stories to the narrative. It helps you give stories shape and color so that people can see stories, ask questions, connect stories to their own experience and connect your theory of change to their own needs.

Culture storytelling

But does storytelling and content strategy matter now?

The value of story in advocacy, politics and social change is in question. That may be difficult to imagine, even debatable, given that digital tools, social networks, and online media give us countless venues for finding, creating, sharing and immersing ourselves in stories.

Stories also seem central to the drumbeat of advocacy and news. We can find stories of immigrants traveling through Mexico, children separated from their parents in Texas, families losing their homes to fires in California and refugees of war stranded in North Africa. We see a thousand more stories each day in viral Facebook photos, memes on Twitter, messages passed through WhatsApp groups and email lists.

Stories that connect people to the politics of the day are in high demand. And the supply has never been greater. People are, generally speaking, confused by the chaos. Humans look to stories to make sense of the world because in story we find themes, morals, heroes with which we identify. We use language and symbols to organize data and facts into a new story about our day, community, and the time we’re living in.

Yet no story lingers in the public consciousness for more than a few days. Politicians and governments use constant storytelling and content to muddy the dominant narrative. When no story lasts more than a few day (or hours) one might even muddy their own narrative to control attention and sow confusion.

How can a story be valuable when our story supply and our story source are seemingly endless?

Maybe in our search for ever more stories we’re missing out on the role of interaction between storyteller and listener. (To be clear, I’m talking broadly about the act of storytelling and not referring to just oral, written, video or any other media. Today, and in the past, stories/content/information passes through many channels.)

Marshall Ganz wrote that one way storytelling contributes to movements is by helping people shape their identity. Storytelling gives us the tools to recognize our community and the work needed to support it. This happens, Ganz writes, through culture forging, a process of “constructing shared understandings of how to manage the risks of uncertainty, anomaly, and unpredictability grounded in recollection of how we dealt with past challenges.”

Before print, before radio and television, and certainly before the internet we used storytelling to learn from elders, parents, community leaders and others in positions of trust. Stories shared patterns that helped us learn about values, community norms, why the sun rose and set when it did, when to plant crops and how to find water. In other words, storytelling set up a culture. It also contributed to adaptations, new ways of thinking, even revolutions.

People, not words, are how stories shape culture

Today, we spend a far smaller proportion of our story telling and listening time in conversation. Social media, video, and other digitally mediated storytelling delivers us wave after wave of longreads, opinion pieces, and stories packaged as a few words above or under a photo. Pussy hats and Pepe memes are themselves elements of political storytelling.

The evolution of storytelling – as teller and receiver – is constantly evolving. We had thousands of years of oral storytelling, a few hundred years of print, and five or six decades of one to three television channels. We now have 25 years, give or take, of the public internet, including a decade of social media.

Stories about culture, norms, politics and social expectations are no longer delivered by a few familiar, trusted sources. And we no longer tell stories to family, friends and neighbors. We’ve opened ourselves to everyone on the planet.

It’s not just the nature of stories that has rapidly changed, it’s who we share them with. This has quickly blown up the role of storytelling and I don’t think we, as cultures, governments and community advocates, have recognized the speed of change.

In the same 2001 essay, Ganz wrote about how the people with whom we share stories shapes identity. Note this was written in 2001, not before the internet but before social media and YouTube:

Our individual identities are thus linked with those with whom we share stories – our families, communities, colleagues, faith traditions, nationalities – and with whom we enact them at our family dinners, worship services, holidays, and other cultural celebrations that institutionalize – or transform – their retelling

If storytelling – or, more simply, people’s stories – are to play an effective part in connecting people in support of movements we need to understand the role of storytellers and listeners, ritual and trust in storytelling.

Where to now?

I’d like to say we should (and could) get rid of 24 hour news channels and social media. I’m not sure humans have adapted to either. But going backwards isn’t a realistic option and regulating or recommending content changes to either opens the door to government-controlled news and storytelling.

Instead, we should look for ways to help change makers, storytellers, organizations and supporters better mediate storytelling. We should actively direct storytelling and content strategy for their power to forge and shape culture. Some ideas:

  • Teach storytelling. Teach listening. Show people the mechanics and the value of story and content. Show people the value of authenticity.
  • Help people tell stories about change and better futures. Develop storytellers who can be trusted by friends, family, and coworkers. Create scripts, help people generate ideas, highlight examples of powerful stories – and empowering stories that give people agency.
  • Stop asking people to share their stories with you. These projects are weird for people, generate half-hearted stories, and rely on you/your org sharing stories. You become middleman, not a trusted storyteller. Instead, guide them in crafting their story and sharing it with their community.
  • Diminish the value of “viral” content. Social media can be gamed. The algorithms maximize for attention. These are narratives that support movements. They aren’t event stories. They’re bits of story that cause anger, fury, momentary hope.
  • Create communities built around trust in our work and organizations. Help people meet and learn from one another.

Community and political leaders are usually viewed as great storytellers. But it’s not the just the story, it’s the trust they develop telling the story. People become symbols for cultural understanding through their storytelling. Leaders understand this.

Organizations and campaigns can support their leaders through storytelling and content strategy. But they can also work to build up the craft of positive storytelling across their networks. In so doing, we return the power of people and relationships to storytelling.

Content is a forest. Don’t just count the trees.

One piece of content strategy is knowing why, when, how (and if) you need to post your content in multiple places. That seems like a lot of extra work. A version of this topic about this popped up last week in a Slack community for nonprofit/NGO folks with which I’m involved. Someone posted this question:

Does anyone have any useful insight for blogging? I’m specifically looking at posting to our native website and cross-posting to other sites – Medium, Linkedin, WordPress, etc. Obviously each has their own strengths but it feels like overkill to post to all.

I love this. Where to put content, when, why, and what it should look like come up in every comms and digital program – regardless of whether or not there’s a clear content strategy. Every organization sorts this out. And the good ones ask the question over and over again. Talking through it presents a great opportunity to dig into about content strategy, staffing, planning, editorial style, marketing and more.

Isn’t putting our content in more than one place just extra work?

Pushing content into multiple channels is probably already happening. Your blog posts, articles, reports, and action alerts are all finding their way into social media posts.

A blog post you write today probably also has an accompanying Facebook post with a headline, text and photo optimized for Facebook engagement. It has a 200 or so character tweet and photo. Maybe it also has a one minute video – an interview with a staff member about the story that can go on YouTube or Instagram.

Doing this much is almost taken for granted. You want to raise awareness of the post, drive clicks to your site and so you create little versions of the story that entice people to click through to find out more.

Measure the forest, not just the trees.

Most of us focus on one featured piece of content – usually a blog post or other page on a website. We’re constantly planting new trees in our content forest. We care for each tree – at least for a day or two – by telling everyone “hey, go look at the tree.” We measure page views and Facebook likes, Instagram followers and retweets.

We’re often answering the “should I also put our content over there” using a cost-benefit equation that can’t be defined. Of course, we’re going to create the main post or piece of content. We have to do that. (You have to have at least one tree, right?)

How do we know if a tree on the website, on Medium, or on LinkedIn is worth it?

What if we could measure the value of the forest instead of each tree? We know a healthy forest needs different kinds of trees. Some live. Some don’t.

Some trees serve as home for squirrels and birds. Others produce twigs eaten by deer. Some create shade the keeps things cool and others drop leaves that replenish the forest floor.

Each person interacting with a story or piece of content (a tree) is getting something special from it. We just don’t have great ways of measuring individual value. But if someone important to us gets all their value from a Facebook tree then we better make sure that all the content they need is on Facebook. Other people might be email newsletter and Facebook consumers. Others get their nutrition from Medium. And maybe a little ego-soothing LinkedIn first thing in the morning.

A thriving forest is alive, evolving and growing. So is your content.

There’s no one way to care for a healthy forest. And what works today may not be worth doing a year from now. Know how people engage with content. Don’t just optimize the website for stickiness or assume you can create great Facebook posts that get people to go read the full article. Consider the people who spend most of their time in Facebook and make sure they get what you need them to get while there. If you can show that your people are on Medium then don’t look that as extra work, look at it as necessary and do it well.

Review your approach regularly. Don’t be afraid to shift gears, test, put more time into one part of the forest for a while.

Measuring the forest.

Figure out how to measure for the forest, not the individual trees. Don’t rely on page views, clicks, opens and raw audience size. That’s all great stuff. Do measure it. But don’t base your decisions about how to spend your time on it.

Here’s an idea: ask people qualitative questions about your content and it’s impact on their work, conversations with family or friends, their ability to take meaningful action. Ask them in January. Then ask those same people again in May and October. Do they recall content? Do they remember where they found it? Did they take an action or make a donation as a result? Did they change their own economic or political behavior? Did they send it to someone? How and why?

Many of these actions don’t happen at grandiose scales. The numbers may not wow you but tangible measures of action, empathy and engagement can be the difference between content that’s distributed and content that has impact. And that’s a helpful number to pin down when trying to define the difference between content strategy and content production.

Bright Ideas: O Facebook What Art Thou?

Here’s the latest edition of Bright Ideas where we take a look at changing Facebook relevance may mean to content, storytelling and marketing. Also, why is BuzzFeed doing tote bags? And new jobs for great people. Subscribe here:

Bright Ideas is a biweekly(ish) newsletter sharing ideas and updates on content strategy and storytelling for advocacy and social good.

O Facebook, What Art Thou? I’m not going to make the case that Facebook is going away. At least not anytime soon. But the obstacles it faces, largely challenges of its own making, should be of enormous concern to any nonprofit campaigner, fundraiser or leader. (And present exciting opportunities for positive change, I hope.)

First, let’s look at how anti-user Facebook’s core product, the ad manager (ha, I mean the news feed), has become. Despite Facebook’s self-proclaimed return to being a place for friends in 2018, it’s pretty much a visual (and targeted) classified ads platform. Example: at 4 pm last Wednesday I pulled up my Facebook feed and scrolled through the first 25 posts. Twelve were from pages I’ve followed at one time or another. Five were ads. Eight were from people I know. Five of those were straight up reshares of page content with no context.

So much for friends.

Second, the world that analyzes these things is full of stories about declining Facebook use among people under 25 and Europeans, among others. This parallels data about falling interest in the US. Meanwhile, Facebook does seem to have followed through on its promise to deprioritize news by sending less traffic to media sites – a hit to online publishers that’s unlikely, in the short term, to do anything about public trust in media.

Where does that leave us? In the short term, probably in the same place we’ve been for a couple years now. Facebook is huge and any organization willing to put real resources behind the creation and advertising of engaging content that can help bring people (and their data) to Facebook is going to be okay.

But can nonprofits as well as media orgs (including nonprofit journalism) continue to rely on social media to drive growth and visits to their websites? And can nonprofits (and even the consultants surrounding them) continue relying on a platform that seems okay absolving itself of political, social and human collateral damage?

Hey, I’m on Facebook. It’s complicated. But somehow I think we need to aim for more human-scale relationship building that don’t outsource targeting of lookalike audiences to an unregulated corporation.

That means, I think, more tools people can use to create news and fewer platforms for sharing news. More members and fewer audiences. More teaching people to tell stories and less talking about storytelling.


If you think this edition of Bright Ideas is interesting (dare we say useful?), please forward it along or share it on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. You could share it on Instgram but that would be weird. Get this from a friend? Want to subscribe? Head over here.

Can tote bags save journalism?

Just say no to Trumpian Drift. How advocates, journalists, leaders tell stories of migrants and refugees says a lot about how society views citizenship and basic human rights. Masha Gessen urges journalists to choose their words and stories with more care because the scale of problems facing us requires smarter – and more scaled – reporting. She points this out in the quote below and it’s important for advocates to be aware of this, hold media to account, and to also be very conscious of how every story is framed in their own communications:

Like most coverage, but perhaps more than most coverage, the writing about immigration has been suffering from what I think of as Trumpian drift. Journalists casually use terms like crossing the border illegally when referring to asylum seekers—when in fact there is no law that says they must use the ports of entry. Journalists increasingly buy into the framing of immigration policy as a strategy for preventing people from entering the United States. And then there is the conspicuous use of the words caravan and migrant to refer to people fleeing for safety.
– Masha Gessen


Adding value by adding values. This is a headline I can get behind because I see nonprofits, unintentionally in most cases, making pitches for financial support and action that reflect the righteousness of their work as though it’s assumed every member or reader had a hand in creating their theory of change. Ben Terrett writes about how successful product design does a great job solving user problems but often shows no regard for public values (using the apropos and timely example of scooters littering most major cities).

Nonprofits and civil society are – or should be – modeling inclusive behavior that helps all consider the impact our work has on the whole community: the powerless, not just members, wealthy donors or the loudest voices. Thanks to Paul de Gregorio for sharing this one.


The constant pressure of tracking everything is burning out journalists. And I know that many activists and campaigners feel the same way as reporters John Crowley spoke to for this piece at Nieman Lab. A few things: (1) Stop reporting on Trump’s tweets. They exist only to overwhelm media bandwidth and make everything about him. (2) We hear a lot about tech solutions to info overload, turning off notifications, and self-care. All good (phone notifications are truly evil). But, as Crowley points out, much of this is driven by management and leaders who support systems that place professional and personal value on constant work.


Does climate fiction lead to climate action? Only if readers are also accessing cultural messages that effective action is possible. Researcher Matthew Schneider-Mayerson surveyed US readers of 19 works “cli-fi” to understand how climate storytelling may help shape advocacy and opinions on climate change.


So…who actually does what in high-performing digital comms team? Every organization is churning out content. Very few are well-staffed for it. The good folks at Contentius put together this smart field guide to content roles.


Get your BuzzFeed tote bag now. It’s free when you make your $100 membership payment. Pretty cynical tone to this piece by Christine Schmidt for NiemanLab but it seems meaningful that a private media company with a household name is scrambling to try every membership experiment it can. Curious how membership as a BuzzWord hooks on here but I’m rooting for the great writers there.


This great little piece from Transparency International shares five ways to help people engage in campaigns. It’s insights that go beyond anti-corruption activism to support most any issue and the communications around it. All orgs could benefit from a user-centered focus on accessibility, safety, relevance, credibility and responsiveness.


Anyone going to (or involved in) the #Reframe Conference on Mental Health and the Media? Looks interesting!

Do good work

A few great roles at the intersection of digital, content, creative and campaigning. Have one to share? Click reply and let me know. Have an idea of your next perfect role but not finding it? Send me a note.

  • Chicago-based Hearken helps newsrooms listen to and engage the public on the way to building public trust and stronger stories. They’re hiring US-based engagement consultants to work with their 150 (and growing) clients. Engagement consultants should have newsroom experience but, as the description says, “please don’t be discouraged if your title doesn’t include engagement-related words.”
  • Free Press has several campaigning/organizing roles open: Campaign Manager, Online Community Manager and Digital Manager. Free Press is leading the fight for net neutrality in the US by, in part, engaging tens of thousands of volunteer activists. The team is based in western Massachusetts, Washington, DC, and remote locations around the US.
  • New Citizenship Project is doing smart work helping orgs and campaigns engage people in more meaningful and powerful ways. The London-based group is bringing on a Strategist. Check it out if you’re over that way.
  • United for Iran is hiring a Civic Technology Program Director based in Berkeley. Great group and should be a wonderful opportunity to do innovative work. Note: must be fluent in Farsi.
  • I don’t know much about Communitas America but this Program Manager role that will run coworking and a social venture accelerator looks super interesting. Based in the Bronx.
  • Greenpeace is filling two Media and Digital Analyst roles to guide the global organization’s tracking and learning from social media, news, and all the other bits that fly around the internets. Flexible location.
  • The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is hiring a DC-based Digital Director.
  • Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC, is hiring a Multimedia Strategist.
  • The BlueGreen Alliance is hiring a Denver-based Colorado State Coordinator to grow and run the Alliance’s work there.

Here’s a google spreadsheet full of job lists, email groups and online job boards where you’ll find roles like these posted. It’s editable (for now) so feel free to comment or add a resource.

What’s on your “you should read this” list?

Here’s a short version of mine. Read either of these? Have anything to add? Hit reply and share what you’re digging into (or at least hoping to with any theoretical extra time).


Question? Idea to share? Let’s talk. Reply or email

Don’t hesitate to forward this to others or pass along the subscribe page link.

Do you create content, measure it and still have no idea if content matters?

You are not alone if you answered yes (or even maybe/I’m not sure) to the question in the headline above. There is a disconnect along the creation, measurement, impact and learning path when it comes to content.

We set up The Content Survey to help you better understand how to develop and measure content that drives social change. Here are some preliminary results (and check out the slides below, too).

Content Survey - Preliminary Results

Who Took the Content Survey

67 organizations participated in the survey. Of that group…

  • 30 are small groups with under 20 staff.
  • 9 are mid-sized organizations with 20 – 50 staff members.
  • 11 are large groups of 51 – 100 staff.
  • 17 are very large organizations with over 100 staff.

The leading ways in which individuals saw their organization achieving its mission were direct advocacy and education. Groups also use research, community organizing, policy making and community service to achieve their mission.

There’s no clear correlation between organization size and having a written content strategy. Twenty-three percent of small groups have a content strategy — same as large organizations.

Overall, only one in four groups report having a content strategy.

Does Content Strategy = More Powerful Content?

Continue reading “Do you create content, measure it and still have no idea if content matters?”

Take The Content Survey

Chances are, if you’re working in a nonprofit or campaign you’re spending a good chunk of time writing, editing, shooting photos and video, or maybe commenting on ad copy or Facebook post language. Maybe you’re putting together language for the next email newsletter, activist alert or infographic for that new report your research team put together.

The Content Survey
Click to take The Content Survey.

All that content we’re putting out in the world are the atoms of advocacy — they’re the bits and pieces that form the dots, build the networks and create change.

Take The Content Survey
from Bright+3 and Echo & Co.

But are we able to make sense of how all the blog posts, reports, emails, videos, infographics and (of course) clever animated gifs are advancing our work? That’s a question we’re continually wrestling with in our research and client work.

We wanted to dig a little deeper and last month released a small query for the community — The (mini) Content Survey. It was a (very) brief questionnaire to get a sense of how effective people felt their content was and how they assess that effectiveness. The most valuable information came as open-ended responses to the question “What’s the one thing you wish you knew about your content (but don’t)?”

Are we smart enough about psychology to have the right context when creating content?

And another:

The extent to which people are learning from content. It’s hard to measure the impact of “educational” content.

Most boiled down to how we know if content is motivating action:

What is the reader’s emotional reaction and what does that move them to do?

These are difficult metrics to gather and evaluate (but it can be done). The question is – do these metrics help (and do we have the resources to learn and act on them)?

Now we’re taking The Content Survey a step further. We teamed up with Echo & Co. to launch and analyze a more complete set of questions – though just 10 questions in all. Next month, we’ll begin reporting back on our findings to the community at NTC in Austin (and for anyone who asks and wants to learn more).

To be clear, we’re looking for feedback from anyone involved in the content creation process so if you’re a digital strategist, fundraiser, organizer or leader, please take a few minutes to take the survey here:

The Content Survey

We’d love it if you would take The Content Survey. Ten questions. Thanks!

What DO you know about your content?

Content is everywhere. For starters: blog and Facebook posts, tweets and webinars, infographics and Slideshare presentations, online and print advertisements, email newsletters, action alerts and fundraising appeals, photo galleries and research reports, annual reports, magazines and books. That’s just a start.

And let’s not forget the dozens or hundreds (or sometimes thousands) more web pages that tell people who you are, how you work, why you do what you do and (super important!) why the reader should support you with their own time and money.

Meanwhile, these readers (donors, supporters, activists, media, legislators and others), are (we hope) relentlessly reading, sharing and taking action with through constant connections to smartphones and tablets.

What’s missing? A clear sense of what works, when, why and a plan for how to move to that spot. When we talk with executive directors, fundraisers, communicators and digital strategists, all report that their organizations are spending more time and money than ever on content. They wonder if they’re doing the right thing (and how to tell).

Content Sur
What works and why? We’re finding out, starting with the (mini) content survey.
Take it now.

What Works and Why?

It’s time to start answering that question. We’re starting with a survey (two surveys, really) that brings together data from across the nonprofit sector about content spending, staffing, strategy as well as goals, methods and metrics. We’ll also be talking with leaders and practitioners to collect stories that give context to the data. When we find patterns in the data that helps explain success (or failure) we’ll dive deeper and hear from people doing the work.

Wait. Two surveys? Sure. The first is a mini-survey. Just three questions to help scratch the surface and identify some key questions YOU (not just us) have.

A survey, after all, should be about what the user needs. Just like great content.

Take the (mini) content survey now. Thanks!