The memory is still vivid: I was four, sitting in front of our two-ton television while watching Little Rascals. Suddenly, a commercial came on that made me drop my spoon of Cheerios.
It was the now iconic Keep America Beautiful ad — Iron Eyes Cody cries after a car passenger tosses garbage at his feet. As the car continues to barrel past, a single tear drips down Cody’s face. I’m pretty sure I cried, too. Though young, I still remember the conversation that evening with my parents about how awful it is when people litter. That video went on to be one of the top 100 ads of all time.
Why was the ad so successful? First, it was the right solution for the times. More than that, it brought a story to life — one that even a little boy from the suburbs could comprehend.
In traditional story architecture, the ad introduced a main character (Iron Eyes Cody blissfully rowing his canoe), the conflict (litter everywhere), and the resolution (People Start Pollution. People can stop it.). The story played out in only 59 seconds, but it summed up a contemporary issue — pollution caused by a new interstate system — while also pricking an emotional nerve. It’s hard to watch a grown man cry.
In nonprofit communication, video is essential. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked — delegated to the organization’s administrative-assistant's nephew or a random cousin. Done well, however, it can quickly articulate an organization’s need and justify support. Handled poorly, it can cause the organization to appear as if it doesn’t understand its own purpose.
Nonprofits, for the most part, rely on fundraising to build capacity. While there are many ways to raise funds, the success of the campaign usually hinges on storytelling: how well the organization tells its own story. Equally important, an organization needs to know its audience. Let’s face it: Every nonprofit thinks its work is the most important and that everybody should support its cause. Today, there are over one million nonprofits in the US, resulting in a lot of competition over those donor dollars. For nonprofits, knowing exactly who needs to hear the message is key.
Finding the core story of any nonprofit can be the hard part. It involves asking many questions, looking deeply into the soul of the organization, and challenging the organization’s purpose. It requires understanding how viewers might approach the story and knowing a story’s relevance to the society at large. According to research conducted by IT company comScore, 183.8 million Americans watched 48.7 billion online content videos, just in January 2014. This staggering reality emphasizes a point: videos are key to any marketing plan. In this day and age, it is the way we communicate brands.
To begin to understand why video is the perfect tool for helping nonprofits communicate, we'll look at video from a technical angle:
- Visually, video is simply a series of still photos. So, think about capturing video like you would a nicely framed photograph — with strong moments, good use of light, and a variety of focal lengths.
- Often overlooked, audio quality is arguably the most significant video component. While weak visuals paired with great audio may partially succeed, great visuals and weak audio simply won’t cut it.
- The soundtrack, or music laid under the speaking and visuals, should be appropriate to content. Many nonprofit videos rely on sappy music to force an emotional response. Keep in mind how important it is to respect your viewers. Sappy music can hinder a viewer’s ability to trust the video’s content. So, use a soundtrack that supports the mood.
- When it comes to video, length matters. If you intend to show this work on the web, be warned that an online viewer’s attention span is about three minutes. If you have a captive audience, it could be longer. But that depends on how well you tell the story.
If you work for a nonprofit, think about telling your story with a well-crafted video — to help donors react to your cause and be reminded that their dollars actually make a difference.