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Now Trending: Communicating for Social Good

Key takeaways from South By Southwest from Six ComNetwork Members


To gain insight on the latest trends and technologies in communicating for social good, several members of the Communications Network attended the South By Southwest (SXSW, or SX, or “South By”) Interactive Festival in Austin earlier this month. That’s right, South By is no longer reserved for musicians, filmmakers, app designers, and hipsters. Nonprofits and foundations were present and accounted for, joining in on the fun and soaking up ideas from high-caliber speakers, ranging from the director of Google.org, the CMO of BuzzFeed, to President Obama. While many of us ComNeters met plugging in to a track focused on purpose-driven content, we also gathered at a breakfast co-hosted by the Communications Network and Atlantic Media Strategies.

Despite the early hour, we were all eager to share what we had been hearing and swap ideas. Excluding the abundant and competing recommendations about the best local BBQ, following are key ideas that stood out for six of us at SXSW. I add mine at the end before giving the last word to President Obama.

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Alejandro De Onis, ‎Director of Digital Strategy & Design, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, @aonis

Reduce, Reuse and Reuse 

News sites are seeing dramatic increases in site traffic coming from redistributing previously posted content. Jean Ellen Cowgill, of Atlantic Media Strategies, noted that, in some months, almost 50% of The Atlantic’s monthly site traffic comes to content not created within the month in question. What’s the takeaway? Instead of looking at communications as a stream that just flows down, we should be treating it as a whirlpool of opportunities to repurpose and recirculate relevant content, especially for organizations with small communications teams. What’s a good strategy for 2016? Focus on producing less noise and create more evergreen content. Experiment more with distribution and embrace platform specificity.

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Jade Floyd, Senior Director of Communications, The Case Foundation, @JadeFloydDC

Telling the New Narrative of the Faces of Entrepreneurship

There were countless organizations and companies gathered at SXSW doing transformative work to increase the ranks of entrepreneurs of color and women founders across the U.S. and abroad. We heard from leaders at Powermoves, Code 2040, Impact America Fund and Kapor Capital and their message was clear – there is a new face and new narrative for the future of entrepreneurship and they are shouting the story from the rooftops!  We also witnessed the power of the pitch in several competitions hosted by USAID and Village Capital focused on diverse entrepreneurs. As SXSW unfolded, I heard from several journalists inspired and ready to expand their coverage and exploration of how diverse entrepreneurs are creating stronger communities, closing the opportunity gap and scaling creative solutions to persistent problems. The stories shared at SX in these settings not only help to elevate the inclusive movement, they are a testament that the full potential of entrepreneurial talent has yet to be reached.

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LaMonte Guillory, Communications Director, LOR Foundation, @LaMonteG

Professional Adrenaline Is Real! (And Fun Is a Requirement)

We are all adrenaline junkies, seeking the thrills of life through adventure and exploration. Adrenaline and fun are often associated with outdoor activities, and rightfully so. Picture this, the snow report reads 17 new inches since the lifts closed at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. First thought: yep count me in for first tracks. But, what about that rush you get just before President Obama takes the stage at SXSW and calls on the audience to apply their ideas and talents to tackle the nation’s biggest challenges? Or when you see Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor Kerry Washington out of character, relaying her successes and missteps in social media? Or when fellow Communications Network members Jean Ellen Cowgill and Jade Floyd lead a session on how a hashtag can break the news while dozens of aspiring attendees stand in the hallway hoping for their chance to get in.

Having served witness to the aforementioned experiences at SXSW provided me with professional adrenaline that I could not have received sitting behind a desk. There is no show without an audience. We’re on all stage at some point, as the keynote, moderator, panelist or the messenger of lessons learned to our colleagues. The fruitful pursuit of professional Zen requires that we purposely seek fun as a requirement to our careers. Connecting with people who are passionate about their work will keep us motivated in pursuing adventure and exploration in our professional growth. See you at ComNet16!

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Keith Mays, Director of Communications, Kauffman Foundation, @keithmays

Don’t Forget the Humanity in the Digital World

I was struck this year by how technology is simultaneously pulling us in two directions. On one hand, it was evident that virtual reality is about to hit the mainstream in a big way — a technology that can immerse us in other worlds, both real and fictional, but does so in a way that abstracts us from humanity. On the other hand, on numerous occasions I heard the call for authenticity in the way we communicate – that we can’t let how we use technology channels get in the way of putting our true selves out there. In this theme, one of my favorite sessions at SXSW was the somewhat philosophical musings of Steve Selzer, experience design manager for Airbnb (@steveselzer). In his session, Steve talked about how we should intentionally put some amount of friction and collisions between people into the digital products we create, as these experiences are the most memorable and are what cause us to stretch and grow as humans.

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Jean Ellen Cowgill, President, Atlantic Media Strategies, @jecowgill

Once a Piece Gains Traction, Flood the Zone

The buzzword of SXSW 2016? Platform specificity. I heard it in just about every session I attended, from a Buzzfeed keynote to a Wholefoods panel to programming specifically designed for non-profits. The concept, in brief: design and format each piece of content “specifically” for the platform on which it will live. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter… each platform is different, the reasons people use them are different, and the resulting conversations on a given topic are different (as fellow panel member Katerina Matsa, of the Pew Research Center, noted). Your content should be different as well. This goes against the now-outdated tenet of “create once, post everywhere.” Even something as simple as a recipe can be re-imagined platform by platform, as CMO Frank Cooper noted regarding the exceptional success of Buzzfeed’s “Tasty” Facebook videos.

If the concept sounds too time- or resource-intensive, I would suggest a related principle is useful to help you get started: platform transcendence. Once an initial piece gains traction (as an Instagram photo, or a Facebook post, or a tweet), ask yourself: what is making this successful? How can I go beyond this first success and go big with the core idea? What would this idea look like as a competition? An event? A video? At Atlantic Media Strategies, we call this “flooding the zone.” Not flooding social platforms with the same, tired blog post. By unleashing the idea behind the post in a flood of new, platform-specific formulations. By taking this approach, organizations can begin to build momentum around their best ideas and get the most out of their most distinctive work.

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Mary Duggan, Communications Project Manager, Barr Foundation, @MaryEDuggan

Want to Break Through the Noise? Break into a New Medium

It’s no small feat to capture someone’s attention and get your message across before the mind drifts…

(What was I saying again? Oh right…) someplace else.  This is especially true for those of us communicating about the social challenges of the world, asking people to think beyond their own needs and donate their time or money. But, if you offer a media experience unlike anything your audience has ever known, suddenly you have a unique opportunity to break through the noise.  This is exactly what the United Nations (UN) is trying to accomplish through their virtual reality documentaries.  They are capitalizing on the emerging medium to draw in the masses and connect them to a cause through an immersive and moving experience.

While at SXSW, I watched the UN’s first virtual reality documentary, Clouds Over Sidra, in which a young Syrian girl takes viewers on a tour of the Za’atari refugee camp where she lives.  The experience proved powerful and I was excited to know that the people waiting in line behind me were going to not only get a taste of virtual reality, but connect with a cause in an impactful, new way.

“It’s not enough to focus on the cool, next big thing,” President Obama said, “It’s harnessing the cool, next big thing to help people.”  That was the President’s challenge to all of us in attendance at SXSW this year.  And it remains our challenge as those dedicated to improving lives through the power of smart communications.

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