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Communications Took Main Stage at SXSW

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Guest Post: Susan Herr, PhilanthroMedia

Study the hundreds of panels convened this year at SXSW Interactive — the world’s largest annual gathering of tech enthusiasts — and you won’t find many specifically focused upon nonprofits and philanthropy.  But what you will find — from the manna that the more than 20,000 geeks who came to Austin to collectively nosh on — are communications trends worth noting because they are likely to eventually trickle down to foundations.

No doubt, many of  the “big ideas” that surfaced this year will not stand the test of time.   But what pervaded the standing-room only workshops, and hopefully will endure, was widespread commitment to harnessing emerging communications technologies in the service of transparency, accountability and engagement for the public good.  Overarching these altruistic notions?  Recognition your only prayer for getting through in this saturated information marketplace is a laser-like a commitment to strategy.

Rushing from venue to venue (and clocking approximately five miles by foot each day) I was able to taste only a fraction of what the Festival offered.  I did, however, find much of direct relevance to the work of philanthropy.  Here are a couple of nuggets worth sharing…

Forget viral content.  Pursue the anti-viral.   

Although foundation communicators rarely expect scenarios in which content they produce will earn millions of hits, most retain the notion there is a connection between the quality of a given video and the number of folks drawn to view it.  In a workshop entitled “Viral is a Dirty Word: Strategic Video Success,” I began to understand how such thinking can – by focusing on spurious indicators – profoundly diminish the strategic value of video as a communications tool.

From the session description:

Viral. No word in the interactive marketing lexicon derails strategic thinking quite as effectively. Everyone wants their video to go viral, but the fantasy of millions of people discovering a video for free (without media, PR and search strategies) leads to disappointment and disillusion. Few videos ever go viral, and fewer actually need to. Good interactive video strategies don’t just rely upon massive numbers of views.

As Jeremy Sanchez, CEO of Global Strategies said, “If you get a million hits folks are laughing at you because there aren’t a million people who care about what you do.”

Antiviral thinking points to production video snippets, crafted for consumption by small but strategic audiences.   Gone is the idea of a highly produced summary video that will reach multiple audiences and gain large numbers of views.  What the panelists made clear was that work is far from done once even the right videos are created.  Tagging, targeting, analyzing and refining video content –based upon well-defined metrics – lie at the heart of this antiviral thinking.

What the panelists made clear was that video worth producing has a job to do.  In almost every case, it’s about more than getting a view.

Storytelling Beyond Words

SXSW curates numerous panels especially relevant to the work of foundation communicators under the category of “journalism and on-line content.” The session description for “Storytelling Beyond Words: New Forms of Journalism,” for instance, described a challenge with which many foundation communicators will be familiar:

We are in the midst of a digital revolution, and yet journalistic storytelling remains trapped in the Stone Age. We have all sorts of digital tools at our disposal — video, social media, interactive graphics, etc. — and still our stories are boring.

At this session, panelist Aron Pilhofer, who serves as head of interactive news for the New York Times, described pushing his colleagues to consider the question “What does a story want to be?” Just because we have always defaulted to the written word doesn’t mean we always should.

As an example, Jim Brady described incorporating snippets of a live video feed within a story entitled “Pearls Before Breakfast,” produced during his tenure there as executive editor.  “Pearls” tells the story of how subway riders reacted, or rather didn’t react, when violin virtuoso Joshua Bell played “anonymously” in a Washington DC subway.

While Brady could have assigned a video team to interview riders about Bell’s performance, with gorgeous footage of him playing, the story was communicated much more powerfully via grainy, hidden-cam footage.   And rather than using one video summary, Brady’s team integrated short takes from the feed alongside copy that described what was happening at that point.

Obviously, these news organizations have access to resources that that dwarf most if not all foundation communication budgets. But the question – What does a story want to be? – comes from and goes directly to strategy.

In fact, none of the panelists would give credence to the notion that innovation was dependent upon resources.  They said, instead, that storytelling innovation thrives when storytellers are fluent across multiple forms. Asked by an audience member hiring for USA Today where they find such folk, Pilhofer replied that it has never been through his HR department. He said the folks he needs to drive innovation at the Times would never think of going in to journalism.  He looks for those “…whose MacBooks are covered with stickers.”

If you want to find those folks, or even just the ideas on which they thrive, mark your calendar for SXSW 2013.

Susan Herr, a regular Communications Network contributor, is president of PhilanthroMedia.


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