Social impact: How do you measure it?

October 6, 2014

“The best story, sitting on a shelf, does nothing. Simply ‘raising awareness’ without a strategic plan will accomplish little more. How can anyone hoping to affect change through their creative work plan for success and know if they are succeeding? We’ll hear from a diverse group of communication experts about how they set goals and employ metrics in their outreach efforts.”

This was the description for the “Assessing Impact” panel that I sat on at last weekend’s Collaborations for Cause 2014 conference in Seattle. Hosted by the Blue Earth, and with support from PhotoWings, this annual gathering brings together documentary filmmakers, photographers and communications professionals for two days of discussion on (and viewing of!) the evolution of issue-driven visual storytelling.

Together with fellow panelists Andrew DeVigal of A Fourth Act, Melissa Ryan of The Nature Conservancy, Hilary Sparrow of Vulcan Productions, and moderated by Russell Sparkman of FusionSpark Media, we hashed out how and whether one can effectively assess social impact. I thought I’d share a few of our takeaways and would love to hear how you measure impact – or whether you think impact can even be measured. You’ll see below that our discussion raised as many questions as it did answers!

  • If you are communicating on an issue, measuring any sort of impact requires setting a baseline and a foundation for your measurement. At the outset, clearly articulate your goals and strategies, who you need to reach with your message and what you define as “success.”
  • It’s pretty easy to claim impact and success if your goal was to pass Legislation X and you were the only one working the issue. Proving your impact is a lot harder when there are multiple players all communicating around the issue. How do you know if a particular photo essay, op-doc, or social meme that traveled far and wide had an impact on the final outcome and how much? Identifying your specific success metrics at the outset, however, will clear some of the fog in this complex process.
  • For most people, simply achieving greater awareness of an issue is not enough. We want active audience engagement. Metrics such as likes, shares and click-throughs are often used for measuring social media impact. So your piece was shared a lot, but did it really have an impact? How much? Enough to justify the time and expense involved if measured against other communications tools?
  • While we often can begin to quantitatively measure impact using metrics, especially with online communications, impact sometimes appears in the form of an anecdote. An example would be getting word from a Senate staffer that the Senator saw your video and was moved to sign on as a sponsor to the bill being pushed. Anecdotes, or other qualitative measurements, are powerful validators in a world where impact is often not a direct path from A to B.

When push came to shove, we all concluded that no one has yet to identify or create a single, one-size-fits-all measurement tool that can determine visual storytelling impact with a given communications effort. Different projects merit different approaches. In one case impact is aimed at behavior change; in another, on policy – passing or defeating a bill; and in yet another, on changing the public debate or how media looks at an issue. And, that’s okay.

Our discussion reflects the current broader discussions happening in the field of measuring social impact. Foundations, filmmakers, photographers, media, and communications professionals are all engaged in a healthy debate over how and what to measure. Regardless, all agree that evaluation will help us fine-tune our craft and, in a world of ever-shrinking budgets, will ensure that we continually hone our ability to engage audiences for social change.

Resource Media staff and our partners have our hearts in telling stories for social good as our way of trying to make this world a better place. Knowing what works, why and by how much, though, is an open question each and every time we tell a story and a unique set of measurement tools needs to be crafted for each and every effort. We’d love to hear your experiences.

Liz Banse