Using video for social change (Part 1)

February 24, 2014

Videos have taken center stage in communications: explainer videos describe how a new app works; instructional videos show how to change your furnace’s air filter; advertising videos are designed to go viral (like that Dollar Shave Club spot).

If you’re trying to drive social or environmental change, you are asking people to care. You may work at a mission-driven nonprofit, but you must make a marketing video. You’re selling something: not cars or cola, but your vision.

Engagement is Job #1

Consider all the nonprofit newsletters, web pages and email blasts you’ve seen that are full of numbers, maps, statistics—data. But when was the last time you were moved to action by a graph? Effective marketing is about engagement, and engagement is emotional, not rational. Research shows that emotions play an unconscious, critical role in much decision-making. So use this to your advantage.

We approach communications not by focusing on what an NGO wants to say but what the audience wants to hear. Our job as a creative agency isn’t to push information out; it’s to draw people in. We know that you have a good story to tell and an audience that wants to hear it. (They may not yet know that, but you can get and keep their attention with a good story—for example, you’ll watch most of this without even realizing it’s an advertisement, and you won’t mind.)

Find the Girl

Emotional engagement occurs through story. In terms of engaging people around a cause, the best story is not even about characters. It’s about a single character, preferably a girl. New York Times columnist Nick Kristof has studied the social science around this phenomenon extensively, and he uses that knowledge very effectively in his writing and recent film, as he describes here. Quoting Mother Teresa, Kristof summed up the power of his approach: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

The truth is, most people who aren’t committed activists don’t care about issues. But people reliably care about other people. Even complex and abstract issues can be made compelling through stories about individuals. Climate Wisconsin does this effectively, as does the International Fund for Agricultural Development in this video about small farmer productivity.

Success Succeeds

Besides focusing on individuals, a successful video tells a story of, well, success. Nonprofits took note when the BBC reported an Oxfam study concluding that images of suffering and starvation in Africa were causing people in Great Britain to be less inclined to help, rather than more so. 

But success is attractive. One of our favorite examples of this is Richie’s Journey, a four-minute film about one at-risk teenager. Tipping Point Community made the video as a funding tool and premiered at their annual fundraising dinner. TPC reported it raised more money that night than ever before.

In Part 2 I’ll share a few techniques for making an effective video regardless of budget.

–Hal Clifford is a principal at Take One Creative, a Colorado creative agency devoted to helping those who do good work in the world tell their story powerfully and effectively through video. Follow him: @TakeOneBoulder