A year after Kony2012, five non-profit wins

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March 5 marks the one-year anniversary of a film that blindsided everyone who has an interest in NGO communications, or how narratives emerge from developing countires – Kony2012. The video defied all logic for web videos. It dealt with a complex and obscure topic, lasted a half hour (most ecof the popular web videos are under a minute long) and had a heavy, moral message. I won’t go into the amazing story of Kony2012, there’ll be enough column inches written about it on Tuesday. But one passage from this excellent Observer piece stood out, describing a a report on the film’s impact, which concluded:

 “[T]he way in which charities communicate has to change in the wake of it”. It was, he said, a “game changer”, “for all of us to hear about it from our kids. That’s how I heard about it, from my teenage son, 48 hours in. I was like, ‘How come you have heard about a Kony video and I haven’t and it’s my job? And I haven’t ever heard you talk about Africa before.’

“They reached young people in a way no charity has been able to do before. They connected to people’s stories. It wasn’t snazzy or trendy. It was just good old-fashioned story-telling.”

Despite Kony2012, many NGOs are still trying to peddle the old press-release (and sometimes video) email to journalists, effectively begging for coverage, when it’s been demonstrated time and time again that you need to push the boat out to get cut-through. Kony2012 changed the game entirely. This video has more than 96 million views on YouTube. That’s unheard of, and it’s proof of concept that if you do something different and connect with people on a human level  your message takes on a life of its own.

So here, in no particular order, are my top five favourite comms projects from NGOs and non-profits, people who really thought differently about how to tell their story. Some are expensive and involved, others cheap and engaging. But all are game-changers in a way, and should serve as models for emulation.

1. Médecins Sans Frontieres – Premium Publications

MSF are consistently courageous with how they tell their stories, blending multimedia with that French bravado that serves them so well. The two books to the right, Writing on the Edge and The Photographer, don’t follow the usual formula, rather they are by-products of them. The Photographer is the story of a snapper who went to Afghanistan in 1986 to observe the work of a team of doctors. After the trip, he and two artists blended his work with a graphic novel describing the trip. The result is a wonderful, human narrative that tells a woven story which separate words & pictures cannot achieve.

Tom Craig’s ‘Writing on the Edge’ is another image-led collection with the photographer again as the constant. Craig was accompanied on a number of trips with MSF by his pick of great writers, AA Gill and Daniel Day-Lewis among them, resulting in an expensive, experimental and richly-produced book that is visually halting and riveting to read. Both are examples of how thought and freedom can create something that endures for a NGO’s brand. I bought copies of both – they’re stunning.

2. Wikileaks

OK, so it descended into farce, with Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy, after hosting a


Russia Today chat show and being defended publicly by George Galloway, but as far as non-profit comms projects go, Wikileaks blew everything else out of the water. They acquired some phenomenal content and made it public in a very creative way, by drip-feeding it to the world and seeding it via a safety-in-numbers network of global media houses, who had the power to visualise and manipulate the data and make it come alive. Would you know about Anonymous or Lulzsec were it not for Wikileaks? Would the occupy protests have happened? Arguable points, but a watershed nonetheless.

3. Shave or Dye

A local one. This initiative from the Irish Cancer Society has raised more than €4.5million for the charity, by getting people to raise money by either shaving or dyeing their hair. It has it all. A macabre play on words in the title, a playful way to make light of one of the worst stigmas associated with cancer – hair loss – by co-opting the healthy into mimicking the worst effect of the illness, or making the hair they still have seem ridiculous. It is fun, and it has the backing of a national broadcaster. A superb, simple success.

4. Mapping @fieldproducer in Burkina Faso

When Neal Mann was between his jobs with Sky News and the Wall St Journal, he was drafted by Save the Children for a trip to Burkina Faso to cover a looming food crisis in the country. They approached me to help them document the trip in a new way. At the time, we were in the habit of using maps to contextualise stories at Storyful, so I suggested we do the same for Neal’s trip to Burkina.

While he pinged back pics and audio from BF, I got busy embedding and arranging them on the Google Map to make the journey come alive. The map ended up attracting 26,000 views, with one of Neal’s audioboo reports getting the same again after it was promoted on Audioboo’s front page.

The engagement was genuine, from fulsome praise to the debate it generated around Neal’s use of Instagram  in some of his reporting. But it was all unfiltered, unmediated, and in real time. Neal had the freedom to respond to users in real time, just as they watched him upload content items and spell out the context around what he was seeing. The trip, it was claimed, generated five times the traffic of a long-form piece from the Guardian from a similar trip to Mozambique.

It took a leap of faith from Save the Children, but it cost them little more than the airfare for a high-profile online newsmaker, and the gains in terms of engagement and understanding of the crisis were manifest.

View Burkina Faso Trip in a larger map

5. Kony 2012

One year, 96million views. Whatever your thoughts on how they went about it, it is a phenomenon, and it should redefine non-profit comms for the future. NGO folk still understand that they struggle to get beyond the ‘black babies’ or ‘eyes ‘n’ flies’ narratives, but this film blew through those stereotypes, for better or worse. It stands alone.

Discontent in a world of content

Guinness’s October ‘cloud’ ad floated softly near many of the YouTube videos I’ve been watching lately. It’s a 30-second version of a TV ad which has been sliced down for the web. It normally appears with the option to click out after five seconds and go through to my chosen video (what YouTube call a TrueView in-stream ad). Like any of those ads, it has five seconds to hook me, five seconds to pique my curiosity before I can escape.

In those five seconds of mandatory viewing, there’s no reference to Guinness. We see a cloud moving over sea, its shadow moving onto a quay and then over a slightly confused chap under some girders, at which point, BAM, I’m bored and I’m definitely clicking out to see the video I came to YouTube for, and Guinness has had ZERO brand impact on me.

Granted, I’m a curious person, and because we work with YouTube it pays for me to understand how ads get served, so I’ve watched the ad through – but purely for that reason. It’s a nice ad, it’s a pretty ad. It’s been well-received as a creative puff piece in the advertising world, as you’d expect from one of the world’s strongest drink brands, (although unnamed critics have said it fails to link to the brand). But it hasn’t been thought through for YouTube. It’s a simple case of someone not understanding the platform. It’s the online equivalent of having 14-point font on a ten-foot billboard – it just doesn’t make sense.

And let’s be clear, this is not a case of where creating a ‘viral’ ad that, shareable for its own content alone (á la Dollar Shave Club), has missed the mark. Nor is it a case of understanding just the potential for reach of a platform (staying with Gillette, as we’re talking razors) but falling short. It’s a misunderstanding of the fact that content AND platform TOGETHER are far more than the sum of their parts. Publishing content that is tailored to get the most out of the given platform has the potential to deliver multiples of the expected impact. This is about having your agency, and your marketers understand the potential, and the constraints, of the platform on which you’re placing content. Get that wrong and you may as well sit on the toilet ripping up €50 notes, throwing the shreds between your legs.

But I’m not a marketer, I’m a journalist. Right?

Platform consciousness is as crucial for journalists as it is for advertisers. Not all content is suitable for all formats. Where, say, video is shoe-horned into a page thoughtlessly, it fails to have the desired effect. Where a longer article is copied from a blog to newspaper site without the links, it is weakened. On both fronts, journalism and advertising, the ones who understand the relationship between platform and content will win the battle for eyeballs. This isn’t knowledge confined to the web-native hipster ‘generetion Meh’, either – the old guard are catching on.

I gave a presentation to Metro International’s annual gathering of editors last week and we discussed the importance of knowing your platforms, knowing your readers and their behaviours, and knowing what to put where, and when. During that talk, we discussed how the Financial Times are going digital-first. More than simply promoting digital, the FT boss Lionel Barber is beginning to realise that you have to look at each piece of content and wonder where it is appropriate to post it, and that may not be in the pink paper, straight off. A few select quotes from Lionel’s email to staff set the tone for the paper’s new direction:

We need to become content editors rather than page editors.

We must rethink how we publish our content, when and in what form, whether conventional news, blogs, video or social media.

We need to ensure that we are serving a digital platform first, and a newspaper second

The New York Times are clearly doing something similar, although Jill Abramson’s memo was a little more person-focused and a lot more vague on the details. They get that when you mix content with platform sharply, it works.

Journalism, or at least part thereof, finally realises it is in the business of content marketing, competing for attention with brands that are motivated to produce great content in huge volumes. The very advertisers that used to subsidise journalism have decided that traditional advertising has a limited potential for engagement, so they’re creating the editorial themselves and hanging their product loosely on it. Content is king. Red Bull know this, which is how a fizzy drink has become a global media brand. Independent beer-peddlers (with a £20m turnover) Brew Dog know this. One of their biggest brand recognition wins was to blow a conversation about a Diageo-controlled prize wide open, positioning them as the dog biting at Diageo’s hefty ankles. Now, their boss has said that he would ‘rather take my money and set fire to it’ than invest in traditional advertising, so they’re putting together a TV show about craft beer.

And that brings us neatly back to Guinness. I’m not about to claim that one of the world’s best-known brands don’t know what they’re doing. The people behind the black stuff clearly understand the black magic of advertising, and the crowd behind the cloud have a full trophy locker. But everyone makes mistakes. Their pretty cloud and its poor fit with the platform shows that the ground under our feet is constantly shifting. As you dance from platform to platform, you must be sure your content is content in its surroundings.

Turn on, Tube in.

Ever wonder what a day of YouTube uploads would look like if you recorded them on VHS and stacked them on palettes? I did. Here it is.

Last Wednesday I told a TED audience of 250 people that the YouTube video platform was becoming the most important repository of documentary evidence about humankind in existence. It’s a bold statement, but I think it stands up.

YouTube is now becoming a real-time window on world events through live streaming. It is already the host of the world’s biggest, most accessible video archive of life on earth – from the mundane to the spectacular. Some of that is real-time documentation, and some of it is retrospective material. And it is growing at a phenomenal rate. Every minute, 72 hours of video is added to YouTube. By the time my short TED talk ended on Wednesday, there were 864 more hours of video on YouTube than when I started.

Three things this year changed how I view YouTube.

The first epiphany was the Democratic conventions in the US. I wanted to watch the event unadulterated, without commentary, without the partisan hackery or faux-objectivity of the networks. YouTube had a page dedicated to the conventions, where I could browse in and out of the live action as it happened, or, when things became a little dull, review videos from speeches I had missed.

What startled me about my own behaviour was that I hadn’t checked the TV stations to see how they were covering it and subsequently dismissed them, but that I made an innate choice that YouTube would be my first stop. I didn’t even consider Fox or CNN – YouTube was naturally the first place I went to watch the elections. I didn’t reach for the remote, I grabbed the iPad. That was a big shift. YouTube had always been the first place I’d go to for footage in retrospect, but for it to be my instinctive choice for ongoing news, as it was happening – that was HUGE.

Felix Baumgartner’s edge-of-the-atmosphere parachute jump was the second. Eight million people logged on to watch that little hop live via YouTube. News channels couldn’t devote the adequate time to it and would skip in and out, but Red Bull’s YouTube channel streamed the entire thing. The last minutes of the ascent were mesmerising. Joe Kittinger’s halting instructions to Felix in his pod were endearing and highly stressful. I hooked a laptop up to the TV to super-size my YouTubing, and watched the plummet, wondering if TV coverage of live events was on a similar, plunging trajectory.

The third  is the ongoing war in Syria.  Footage from Syria and the Arab Spring in general falls into a different category to most YouTube uploads- it is, arguably, evidentiary material. An entire war, to which external media were NOT welcome, has been documented via the clenched, phone-holding fists of citizens, soldiers and activists. And last week, the UN said that one particular event could, if validated, be considered a war crime. The evidence lay largely on YouTube servers.

We are now the most-chronicled generation in history.  There has never been a greater level of unfiltered documentation of humanity (caveats coming) in history. It also gives us a window into countries that old-school news would never have shown. Through YouTube you get to see past media stereotypes to get candid glimpses from Saudi Arabia, central Russia, caucus states, Pacific islands and elsewhere. It must be said, however, that documentation falls short of being global. Swathes of the planet are not represented for reasons of culture or connectivity. We know, in Storyful, that there are ‘black holes’ for YouTube footage, due to connectivity, etc.  Coverage from certain countries in Africa is abysmal. When we’ve gone looking for footage of news events in Congo, Mali or anywhere in the centre of Africa, it’s simply not there. Iraq is a dead zone for YouTube content. On the other hand, I’ve been involved in helping Google curate video from elections in Nigeria, Senegal and currently Ghana, all of which have been very active, and creative, in how they cover news. Given its need for decent upload speeds, a per-country/region comparison of video footage tallies could very well be an interesting benchmark for a global connectivity study.

The problem with YouTube being a gigantic and ever-growing haystack of video is that most people approach it looking for needles, and the means by which you find what you’re looking for haven’t matched the pace of the growth in volume. Organising the stack is crucial to make it navigable, useful, and potentially, to allow it blast a lot of TV into insignificance by making more content accessible to everyone, everywhere. he greater focus on channels, much vaunted of late, will hopefully begin to make this a reality.

How does this relate to the mainstream media? The media houses that recognise that organising YouTube into usable channels early are the ones will thrive. You can already see how some are adapting. Check out the New York Times, with their Timecast videos and wall-to-wall election coverage. See how the Weather Channel delivered non-stop Sandy via YouTube for the duration of the storm & aftermath. And look at the Wall Street Journal which has succeeded in integrating relevant, timely web video reporting seamlessly into what was a traditionalist financial newspaper.

News orgs can’t think of themselves as TV channels, or newspapers (with website) anymore. They have to think of themselves as content generators, connecting with the audience via whatever format people makes sense for them as they go about their daily lives – and with the access to more and more newsworthy video content ON YouTube (72 more hours of it every minute, remember) it’s cheaper than ever to package news with video. Being successful in news in the next five years probably means having a sensible video strategy, re-skilling journalists to tell their stories using multimedia – training an old-school subeditor to think of 15 selected seconds of amateur footage in the way he might once have thought of formatting a pull-quote.

To do all that, the haystack has be organised. At TED, 15-year-old Jack Andraka drew a standing ovation as he described how he, effectively, Googled his way to means of detecting pancreatic cancer. In doing so, he had to find the one protein of more than 4,000 in the cancer which would help him in his bid for early detection. He described it not as finding a needle in a haystack, but as finding a needle in a stack of needles, which is probably just as accurate in this case. Without the means to find the needle you’re looking for, your fingers are going to get pricked thousands of times. And that’s no fun.

UPDATE: YouTube recognised by the ICFJ with an ‘Innovation in News’ Award: