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Voices Social innovation

Telling the world’s stories to promote change

Wendy HanamuraLink Media

Wendy Hanamura is vice president/strategy and general manager of Link Media, Inc. She is also in charge of Link TV’s ViewChange.org, a multimedia web site that shares powerful videos about real people and progress in global development. Hanamura began her career at Time magazine, has been a Tokyo-based correspondent on the Discovery Channel and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), a reporter for CBS’s San Francisco station, KPIX-TV, and produced a series for PBS.

The TakeawayMedia can be a powerful force for social change. Telling stories that connect on an emotional level and offer hope that individual effort can make a difference can inspire viewers to take the first step toward involvement. Many organizations, though, err by dwelling solely on the problem rather than the solution, or leaning toward the purely promotional when telling their stories, undercutting credibility in both cases.

We all know that stories can be powerful motivators. Good ones can change the way we think and act and inspire us to heroic efforts. So it’s especially troubling that so many reports from the developing world deliver a relentless drumbeat of bleak news about famine, AIDS, genocide, and other catastrophes. The stories may be accurate as far as they go, but the sheer magnitude of the problems they depict discourages positive action. As Jeff Davidoff, chief marketing officer at ONEtold me, “It’s not that people don’t care. It’s that they worry that caring is not enough. That no matter how much we care, we won’t be able to make a dent in the world’s big problems.”

So capturing and sharing inspiring stories from the front lines may be the first step: a way to shift perception, motivate audiences, and inspire collaborations that can allow good ideas to reach scale. But the reality is that we live in a market-driven society, where media outlets receive few rewards for producing “do-gooder” reports from the developing world. I’m talking about stories like that of Daniel Dembélé, who’s building the first solar panels in Mali to bring electricity to village schools. It’s a story about Africans helping Africans, and building a viable clean energy business in the process. “Why should I not make money helping my people also? This we can make in Mali,” Dembélé’ explains in “Burning in the Sun,” the short film by Cambria Matlow, one of the winners of our ViewChange Film Contest.

At Link TV, we decided to come up with new ways to discover, tell, and share stories of progress from the developing world. Two years ago, we embarked on a multiplatform media project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to find and disseminate the best stories of social innovation. First we held a film contest. The goal was to motivate filmmakers worldwide to create short videos documenting progress in achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. We accepted 136 films covering projects in 49 countries, from Tanzania to Nepal. Then we looked around the world for nonprofits, media companies, and journalists who were capturing vital videos about social change. The results are now on view at ViewChange.org, where you can watch 450 videos, from full-length documentaries to targeted shorts. They include a drama series from Kenya about mediating tribal strife through soccer, and an animated short, “Vital Voices: Kakenya,” about a remarkable teacher who built a school for girls in her Maasai village.

Along the way, we learned some lessons about the way global developers tell their own stories. The huge international agencies tend to focus only on the problems, not the solutions, and as a result, their stories are more likely to discourage than inspire. At the other extreme, cash-poor nonprofit groups lean toward purely promotional videos that no journalism outlet would ever air. Today’s viewers are very perceptive and very skeptical—they know they aren’t hearing the whole story from these PR vehicles. What’s more, even when an organization produces a terrific, balanced story—say, about an innovative crop insurance program in Ethiopia—other groups in the sector are reluctant to help disseminate it because it doesn’t bear their own brands.

We decided to change the paradigm by working with organizations involved on the ground, including Save the Children, Bread for the World, Population Services International, and Oxfam America. We worked with media experts in each organization to create 30-minute programs highlighting their progress around the world. These were savvy producers, who realized that to capture a wider audience, they needed to be less promotional and more journalistic. It wasn’t always easy for them to convince departments within their organizations to tell stories that exposed the weaknesses of their own programs. In addition, these ViewChange television episodes often feature the work of more than one organization—again, not always an easy sell to organization managers vying for donor funds with some of those same groups. But having nonprofits trumpet each other’s work proved to be a key to reaching larger audiences. It meant that marketing experts in multiple organizations around the world could mobilize and collaborate to help promote a particular video.

Link TV also wanted to reach beyond the choir of true believers in the United States. So earlier this year, we experimented by broadcasting a ViewChange program about South Asian social innovations on the Delhi-based cable & satellite network, NDTV Profit. According to their ratings research, 912,000 urban Indians watched the program (rural viewers are not metered), an increase from the usual viewership in that slot. Indian viewers said they liked “the focus on solutions instead of problems.”
Perhaps the most exciting innovation is the technology that runs ViewChange.org itself. Link Media benefits from its headquarters location at the gateway to Silicon Valley, where we get to hang out with developers and companies working on the next wave of technology. Our brainchild was to take something called semantic search and apply it to video. We wrote a new semantic algorithm that automatically links a video to related definitions, topics, articles, blogs, other videos, and even social actions. Using this smart search tool, our site wades through the huge database of information on the web and links consumers to the content that is most relevant. Now, all in one video player, viewers can easily find the videos, articles, and social actions that allow them to take the next step—from watching a powerful story to learning more to engaging with others to taking action.

One of the largest questions looming over media for social change is how to measure impact. We can count clicks and estimate television viewership, but does seeing a powerful story lead to real change? Last year, we commissioned a survey of 600 satellite television viewers to try to answer that question. After watching Link TV, 65 percent report taking an action; 37 percent have taken three actions or more; 26 percent engaged in a discussion about issues raised in the piece; 19 percent changed their perspective on an issue; and 12 percent actually volunteered because of something they watched. An action might be sharing a video on Facebook, tweeting about it, or actually donating time or resources.

The results suggest that media can play a key role in fueling social change. It’s especially powerful when the story makes an emotional connection and is presented fairly, when organizations work together to attract audiences, and when the actions that viewers can take to get involved are on the same screen, making it easy for them to take the next step. Over the next year, we plan to continue developing evidence-based metrics for success—learning more about what motivates action, the right combination of information and storytelling, and strategic partnerships that optimize opportunities.

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