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Using Video Content to Tell High-Emotion Stories: Nonprofit Marketing

man's face-frog on armIn theory, videos should be one of a nonprofit marketer’s most powerful tools. No content on the web today has the same viral potential of video, and few forms of content can match it for immediacy. In the span of a few minutes, videos can transport audiences to the front lines of an organization to experience compelling stories by sight and sound — the sort of up-close-and-personal impact that’s usually reserved for in-person meetings. As an added bonus, the potential audience for video content is virtually limitless, from conference attendees to readers of virtual annual reports to casual viewers on YouTube (the third most trafficked site on the internet today, behind Facebook and Google).

But in practice, many nonprofits are still lacking results. A 2014 report from the Content Marketing Institute reveals 92 percent of nonprofits in the United States are engaged in content marketing, yet only 26 percent deem their current content marketing campaigns effective. 

When it comes to video, part of the problem has been what I call the “post-and-pray” strategy. After producing a film, organizations often have no strategy at all other than posting the film to social media, putting it up on their website, or maybe sending it by email to their audience and then praying the viral gods of YouTube blow a friendly gust of good fortune in the video’s direction.

No matter how gripping the story or how adventurous the setting, video content still needs a sound distribution plan to find an audience that will help move its marketing mission forward. Without it, videos will end up languishing on home pages or only drawing a handful of “likes” on Facebook.

Meet Chuna

Consider Meet Chuna, a micro-documentary about a Nepalese woman who was brought up to believe she was worthless because she was a girl. (Disclosure: Meet Chuna was produced by my company, Micro-Documentaries.) At 47, she flipped the narrative of her life by teaching herself how to read, educating her daughters, and starting a women’s association to ensure other women have a safe space to learn and dream. It’s a nice story, especially when you can see and hear it directly from Chuna. But there are plenty of other films out there that tell equally touching tales. What gave this film 40,000 views in a span of three weeks was the distribution plan behind it.

In unison with launching the film, nonprofit READ Global reached out to hundreds of bloggers who covered topics related to Chuna’s story in some thematic respect (e.g., women and empowerment, reading and libraries, education, mommy blogs, authentic travel, or South Asian philanthropy). The film ended up landing on an array of sites, including the gold standard of viral video platforms: Upworthy. READ Global saw a 54 percent increase in the total number of donors to its end-of-year campaign as a result.

closeup woman's face

Be true, be humble and get to the point

In addition to lack of strategy, video content marketing campaigns in the nonprofit space often prove ineffective due to the videos themselves, which tend to run too long and focus on the organization rather than on content the organization’s audiences would like to consume.

Regarding the former, video content should be bite-sized, which I define as two to three minutes in length — five to six, max, for more in-depth content. Anything longer comes off feeling like an infringement on your audience’s time. Note that “bite-sized” doesn’t mean lacking substance or story; it just means editorially focused. Consider the Rainforest Alliance’s Follow the Frog. It’s short. It’s fast-moving. And to date it’s racked up close to 4.5 million views.

Likewise, video content must feel authentic. The moment an organization injects a whiff of promotion into a film, audiences will lose interest. It’s better to leave the brand out of it altogether and deliver real stories and material that will educate, entertain or inspire. Then, at the end of the video, allow the audience to discover the brand in an “aha” moment. This creates a feeling of gratitude for the content (i.e., “Aha! This all ties into a Rainforest Alliance campaign.“) rather than the sensation of being introduced to yet another organization you should care about but don’t have the time or energy to do so.


An interesting case study is the city.ballet video content marketing campaign from the New York City Ballet, which was released as a mini-series through AOL On in fall 2013. On the one hand, the campaign breaks the rule I just stated in that it’s all about the organization, illuminating the dancers and their preparation for the stage. The 12-part series was successful, however, because it was executed with a raw aesthetic and provided an imperfect portrayal of the ballet, rather than a polished promotion. The dancers feel real, vulnerable, and intimate — and the company’s video content is highly compelling, as a result.

The producers also did a good job of keeping each video short and weaving a variety of formats into the series: overview, testimonial, expert profile, and mash-ups. Drama builds from one video to the next, and we find ourselves increasingly drawn into the behind-the-scenes working of an organization whose product we may or may not have cared about when we started the series. The “aha” is less powerful here. We know the organization is there all along, but it’s not trying to sell us anything, and the more the stories engage us, the more the bell goes off that this might be a group of artists we’d like to support.

hanging ballet shoes-railing-city background


The city.ballet series was thought up, produced and narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, who sits on the organization’s board. But if you’re a nonprofit marketer out there, don’t be fooled into thinking that you need a celebrity to narrate your video content. You don’t. Nor do you need the budget to launch a 12-part miniseries on AOL or to produce a commercialized film with storyboards and actors like Follow the Frog. I point to these two examples, in addition to Meet Chuna, because they succeed where many others fail.

Keep it short, keep it real, tell a story that’s bound to inspire and remember: Don’t post and pray. It’s never the way.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.