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Storytelling on a Budget

publication date: Oct 16, 2018
author/source: Mo Waja

For many of the smaller nonprofits out there (and even some of the larger ones), committing to marketing through storytelling can seem like a daunting prospect, particularly if it is not something your organization does consistently. One frequent argument against making the leap into very intentional storytelling as a branding and marketing method is cost.

In a world dominated by the almost cinematic experiences of giants like SickKids and Charity Water, our framework for marketing storytelling has been skewed toward big budget productions when the reality is that there are a number of great options for organizations with very little budget to tell their story well.

Start With People Let’s start with content. Nonprofits, particularly nonprofits that tap into social good popular in the media, are uniquely placed to tell very good stories. Why? Because while many for-profit organizations need to write a narrative around their product in order to attract consumers, nonprofit is nonfiction – meaning that our stories have already been written by the extraordinary experiences of many of our stakeholders.

Whether it’s a member of your population, a volunteer, a donor, or other supporter, many of the people who support your organization have highly personal stories and experiences that build the narrative of your brand by painting a picture of the landscape around the population you serve.

So, Step 1 of storytelling on a budget is to look internally and find core stories within your population and stakeholders that express a need that you have fulfilled and demonstrate positive outcomes from the good work that your nonprofit has done.

Choose Your Medium With new storytelling technologies (for instance, virtual and augmented reality) growing rapidly, the options for content creation can seem overwhelming. For the purposes of this conversation, let’s stick to three primary forms of content:

1. Written

2. Audio

3. Video

Each of these options have their advantages and disadvantages, but all three can be produced fairly quickly at little to no budget.

Written Content … is a staple of content creation and is often seen in the form of articles, blog posts, or longer form reports. The advantage of written content is that it is fairly easy to produce and relies primarily on the pre-existing or researched knowledge of the writer. The disadvantage is that consuming written content requires a higher level of commitment from your audience. Today, most of your audience members will be looking for content that they can consume while doing other things. The problem with written content is that it requires the complete focus of the reader in order for them to take full advantage of the information. This means that you may lose some readers who are unwilling to commit their full attention to your (or any) single piece of content.

Pro Tip:  If you’re looking for a place to start, consider interviewing some of the stakeholders in your nonprofit on their experiences around the work your organization does. Either transcribe the interview and use it as a “written interview” paired with a photo of that person, or use their content to draft a point-of-view article on the subject of the interview.

Audio … continues to grow in popularity through podcasting as a means of content creation and distribution. The advantage of the podcast is that it is fairly easy and low cost to get into. A basic lav mic setup and a hosting app like Libsyn or Blubrry should set you on the path to success. Additionally, through said hosting apps, the opportunity for easy, widespread distribution is fairly significant – with Libsyn, for example, podcasters have the opportunity to push their podcast directly to Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and iHeartRadio right from the app interface allowing them to tap into a ready-made pool of potential listeners. If you need one more advantage to convince you that an investment in audio is a good one, it’s that audio content allows you to take advantage of passive intake of information; meaning that it allows your audience to consume your content while doing other things (driving, jogging, cooking, etc.). This makes the commitment threshold lower and people potentially more likely to listen to what you have to say, quite literally.

The disadvantage, here, is that there is a (small) learning curve when it comes to putting your first podcast together and beginning distribution. On the flip side, once you’ve run your first couple of episodes it’s quite straightforward to create a set of systems that improve and scale the production of future episodes.

Pro Tip:  If you’re looking to run something seriously low maintenance, start by looking into the RODE SmartLav+. This lav mic is specifically designed to plug into your phone, making your phone the recorder. Paired with a basic recording app this mic helps turn your phone into your podcasting hub.

Video … is really the gold standard of marketing storytelling. If your organization has the ability to produce good video content, it really should. Luckily, the phone in your pocket has made producing good video a very low threshold activity. For example, with anything from around the iPhone 6 onwards you’re walking around with a fairly high quality camera, more than capable of putting together good video content that you can use for events, interviews, and storytelling production. Both Windows and Mac computers come with capable, built-in video editing programs that allow you to take that raw video and transform it into solid, engaging content for everything from social media, to advertising, to stewardship pieces.

Similar to written content, the main disadvantage with video content is that consumption requires a higher degree of commitment from your audience, and the fact that it engages both the visual and auditory means that it does not take full advantage of passive intake of information. That said, the dynamic nature of video means that more of your audience is more likely to make the commitment to watch your video – particularly if it is well produced and engaging.

Pro Tip: Casual selfie videos with an engaging spokesperson for your organization have become increasingly popular as a quick and easy strategy to produce decent video content. This only works, however, when the selfie video is done in a place or at an event that allows for engagement beyond the person talking to the phone (camera). Organizations like Charity Water have taken advantage of the selfie video to great effect.

Again, we live in a world dominated by big budget marketing productions that can make lower budget efforts seem lacking. Here the words “stylistic choice” are important. If your organization is going to do storytelling on a budget, the easiest way to avoid unfair comparisons to content produced by other, larger brands is to make the production available to you with the equipment you have intentional. This way it becomes a stylistic choice, at least until your budget gets bigger.

Mo Waja is a professional speaker and marketer, the author of presentIMPACT: The Speaker’s Guide, the Host of the Toronto Story Archive Podcast, the Host of the Let’s Talk Speaking podcast, and currently works in social media and digital marketing at a Toronto nonprofit.

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