Time spent watching online video going up means you need to tell a good story to the right people

Time spent watching online video vs. streaming viewers.
Time spent watching online video going up while number of people watching holds steady.

People are watching more video online. Recent data from Nielsen shows that the growth of time spent watching online video is outpacing the rise in unique viewers. In other words, most people that will watch video online are already doing so. Growth is coming from those people spending more time watching video.

Nielsen and others cite growth in long-form video watching and not just watching more videos. People are spending more time watching movies and TV shows on Hulu, Netflix and other streaming video outlets. More people watching Weeds on their computer doesn’t have many direct benefits to organizations using video to build awareness and market their issues. Minimally, however, this is a sign that people are increasingly able and willing to view longer length streaming content.

There are a couple important takeaways for organizations. One is the value of good storytelling in video. Another is the need to take distribution strategy seriously from the start. Video content is found through many channels, lives in many places and needs to be much more than something plopped on YouTube and embedded on a web page you host.

Tell a Great Story

This shouldn’t be news to nonprofits. Some of the most successful online videos have been a few minutes or longer because they’ve used storytelling to drive engagement and sharing. A couple great examples of this are the Story of Stuff and the Meatrix. If you want to dive into some of the storytelling themes used in these videos I suggest you check out this recent presentation by Jonah Sachs, a point person behind both Story of Stuff and the Meatrix.

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Storytelling a Start to Engaging Action, not the End

Is storytelling enough? Is storytelling the peak engagement activity? If your organization is engaging supporters with good stories are you doing all you can for your people and issues? Storytelling is essential but it must tie tellers and readers together into a network that takes meaningful action.

Storytelling HereThat seems one possible conclusion that could be drawn from a recent post by Katya Andresen in which she discusses the “humanization highway” concept in Jay Baer and Amber Naslund’s book The Now Revolution. Baer and Naslund are describing responsive businesses with great customer service models. In their view (quite rightly, it seems) the more “human” an organization becomes the better service it provides. This leads to better, more loyal customers. A similar case could be made for nonprofits: interact with members and supporters on a personal, human level and you’ll have more active and engaged participants.

Baer and Nasulund lay out a five point continuum of “humanness” that places storytelling at the top. The full list is:

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Colorado Kaleidoscope: the Story of a Good Online Storytelling Site

Some days I wake up and think that storytelling seems to have become the buzzword du jour (well, I don’t think this immediately upon awakening…after a cup or two of coffee perhaps…a time when “buzz”word takes on meaning). Inviting members, supporters, constituents or whatever part of your audience you like to “tell their story” now seems to be step one of the online engagement handbook.

Colorado Kaleidoscope homepage
Colorado Kaleidoscope storytelling site from Colorado Health Foundation
But once something enters the handbook it can be mishandled. Organizations run the risk of commoditizing stories by using them primarily as a tool, a tactic, a method for getting towards “engagement” and increasingly elusive fundraising and/or advocacy goals.

By their very nature, stories are personal. Those of us who write blog posts, fundraising emails and other material about the issues we work on ever day sometimes forget the personal nature of stories. A good story – with plot, hero, crisis and resolution – does nothing if not peel back the onion over the soul of the teller.

A story can give a glimpse into the experience, heart and mind of people. This is personal and can be a bit scary, which helps explain why good stories can be so hard to write. Despite evidence provided by Facebook’s rise (or perhaps evidenced by the often shallow nature of Facebook interaction), sharing is not simple. Most people have a hard time revealing or hinting at details of their lives for an audience. We’re shy. Or wary. Reticent. Or just way too damn busy to bother.

Organizations Behave Like Organizations, not People

Organizations too often approach storytelling projects as, well, the organizations they are and not as people. It’s hard to explain the purpose of the story, what will happen to it, what the organization will offer in return for the story. Organizations dive into the technical aspects – guidelines, format for the web page, forms, where do photos and video actually live – and can pay too little attention to the story itself and the opportunity for creating and strengthening sustainable relationships that can offer more value to the organization and the storyteller.

We can, with a good sized email list or other audience, make a request for user stories – narrative, audio, video, photos or a combination – and get responses. But it’s easy to undervalue the opportunity and/or not be sure how much value there might be. Interaction and relationship-building has a reputation for being staff resource intensive – and it can be tough and not necessarily scale. Rather than undermine the potential, however, by not giving a project enough resources and the participants enough support.

That’s why it is great to see an online storytelling website with a purpose in mind and a fair value proposition for the audience while providing the support needed to help the audience craft great stories.

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Getting to Stories with Metrics

Jeff Brooks is the man behind a great blog called Future Fundraising Now. In a recent post he discussed what performance metrics donors are looking for from the nonprofits they support.

Brooks’ thesis is that donors give primarily for emotional reasons and while metrics aren’t irrelevant donors aren’t seeking to connect with a cause or organization on data-driven, analytical levels. Stories about the people involved in and benefiting from the organization’s work (work funded by the donor) fuel the emotion that engages people to give, volunteer, fan organizations on Facebook and spread the word.

Yet Brooks doesn’t dismiss metrics one bit. With respect to stories he writes of good data gathering:

“You’ll get better stories. A system of gathering metrics will put you in contact of what donors really want: stories. And that leads to better fundraising.”

Metrics can tell a story about stories. Donors want stories.

But how do we learn about our storytelling from metrics? There is a ton of data out there. Too much. What can help guide us, inspire us to write better stories for our donors and others in our audience?

We can look at feedback metrics to gauge interest in our work. Some of these measurements also come with commentary that can give insight into the quality of the work. These metrics might be, for example:

  • pageviews of a blog post or other web page,
  • comments on a blog post, and
  • retweets, facebook shares and other social media discussion

If you don’t think that your content is generating the sort of reader numbers or discussion that you expect it could be a sign that you aren’t telling good stories and engaging people in your work through the content. Growing pageviews and comments in a certain type of content or subject area could indicate that those stories are interesting your constituents and may be good topics for further stories and fundraising efforts.

What about programmatic metrics? We can look at data measuring the type, quality or quantity of programs the organization provides to flesh out stories about that work. Here it is going to depend on your work but tying programmatic metrics to the people (and places) you have helped will strengthen stories.

  • How many people have been trained at job training sessions? How many participants are now in the workforce? What is a story of one or more participants about their experience and way life has improved?
  • How many meals were put on a table by your food bank? How many people have access to more local food with better nutritional value through your inner city slow food project? What are some of the stories from participants about how this has made them more independent or better able to feed their family?
  • How many people are receiving calls and emails encouraging them to attend a county hearing on natural gas drilling in the area? How many showed up? How many spoke? How many are now engaged in ongoing efforts to improve energy production in the area?

We work in a time when it is literally possible (almost) to drown in data that measures our performance. Your supporters don’t want to see it all. They will love you because you do great work that changes lives. Focus (for your donors) on telling good stories informed by solid metrics. If you want data for your accountant that may be something altogether different.