Storytelling trends for NGOs in 2019

NGOs, like organisations in other sectors, need to continually keep abreast of communication outputs and distribution methods in order to engage and sustain audiences.  As we enter a new year, Tim Webster looks at storytelling trends and techniques that NGO’s can harness in 2019.

The social experiment.

The first storytelling trend to highlight is one of the most versatile; the social experiment video. Social experiment videos engage audiences on important issues in a creative format that overturn popular expectations or perceptions. They encourage sharing, due to their key elements of surprise and empathy. The simplicity of the format means it can be utilized to great effect to promote a diverse range of subject matters across environmental, humanitarian and development issues.

The videos work on a simple formula of presenting a situation or subject to ‘ordinary’ members of the public, on the street or in the studio, and then overturning perceptions and expectations through one or more challenges and reveals. For example, UNICEF’s social experiment film, Would you stop if you saw this child in the street? demonstrated the efficacy of the approach, when it captured pedestrians’ reactions to Anona, a six-year-old actor dressed in the clothes of a migrant street-child, compared with a well-dressed ‘western’ girl. The lack of regard towards the migrant girl highlighted ingrained societal prejudice, encouraging viewers to reflect on their own responses. The film has received over 4million views online. ‘The real price of water’created for UNICEF Somalia, won two awards in the Lovies 2018 after receiving over 27 million views worldwide; a testament to the power of social experiment videos.

The Last Generation.

- Interactive documentary, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Interactive documentary.

With the development of new technologies comes the opportunity for new approaches to storytelling. Interactive documentaries can combine traditional multimedia techniques with newer elements such as 360, housed on micro-sites where audiences can experience the story through multiple media formats.

 Our Home, Our People’ is an engrossing online interactive documentary by the World Bank, exploring climate change vulnerability in Fiji through the stories of 4 individuals. The project was also viewed on VR headsets over 8,000 times at festivals and crucial climate change events such as COP23, attended by decision makers. In a similar vein, The Last Generation documents the lives of children living on the Marshall Islands, the low-lying atoll of islands in the South Pacific at the frontline of climate change.

Though not strictly ‘interactive’, 360 video still provides a uniquely immersive experience for audiences which can create high levels of empathy. Mudslide 360 documents the experience of one mother after her home was destroyed in the Freetown mudslide, Sierra Leone. The film follows the story from ground zero, to temporary camp and finally a new home, with the help of UNICEF. The film also harness binaural audio which mimics the experience of human hearing, further immersing the viewer in the 360 environment.

As 360 matures creating empathy is not enough in ensuring an audience takes action on an issue. Viewers also need to understand the structural inequalities and complexities of situations, so that they feel enabled to act accordingly. On the Brink of Famine is a powerful 360 film from Frontline that takes viewers into the humanitarian crises enveloping South Sudan to explain in detail the reality of life on the ground and assistance being given. It also takes advantage of Facebook’s new integrated 360 capabilities.

Because of bandwidth issues and the availability of technology, distribution can be limited to ‘first-world’ countries or events such as festivals or conferences. In the case of Our Home, Our People, 360 presented the perfect tool to transport decision makers to Fiji, to see for themselves the devastating effects of climate change.


With a new focus on using niche social networks for marketing campaigns, cinemagraphs are seeing a resurgence in popularity. Cinemagraphs are still images with a moving element and can be created from either film footage or photography. Instagram is now the top-rated platform for social engagement and is a fertile platform for NGO’s to share powerful cinemagraphs.

An excellent example of cinemagraphs being used by an NGO is ICRC’s Syria Street, documenting the experiences of residents in one of Syria’s most violent neighborhoods. The isolation of movement that typifies a cinemagraph adds to the sense of loss and loneliness that now permeates a once vibrant city.

Their powerful, yet subtle effect, coupled with low production costs, means cinema graphs are almost certainly going to see a resurgence and become a popular storytelling trend in 2019.

Someone like you.

- 2-way storytelling, Charity Water.

Participatory and 2-way storytelling.

In a bid for simplicity and internal communication requirements, NGO films have been traditionally guilty of imposing their story onto the worlds of ‘beneficiaries’. As audiences become more aware of the voice behind the message and more savvy about ‘the truth,’ there is a greater trend towards participatory storytelling and an increased consideration of the point of view (POV) of a story’s subject. Now, more than ever before, audiences are seeking characters they can connect with, heroes they can relate to and cultural revelations.

Whilst well thought out traditional linear documentaries shot in a participatory mode offer an excellent way into the lifeworld’s of other people, connecting audiences directly with people on the other side of the world is a growing trend in NGO communications.

Charity Water’s Someone like you connects audiences with an individual facing water scarcity in Ethiopia. By putting in a few personal details the page matches the user with a like-minded individual, allowing them to meet virtually and learn about their life. The platform not only allows for a western audience to feel personally connected with an individual far removed from their daily lives, but it also gives the contributor in Ethiopia the opportunity to present their personal story in their own way.

Going one step further than this is WaterAid with their Chatbot, connecting their supporters directly with the people they are helping. Accessed through Facebook, the Chatbot connects users with individuals in Sierra Leone, learning about their life and keeping updated with their experiences.

Innovative use of social influencers.

Given that the majority of NGO communication outputs are consumed on social media, drawing on social influencers and networks can be a powerful tool in maximising outreach. Celebrities, YouTubers and bloggers with large numbers of followers present opportunities for NGO’s to increase outreach within online communities, that would be otherwise hard to reach. Using infuencers in new and innovative ways is already on-track to become a storytelling trend for 2019.

There are various ways that NGO’s can partner with social influencers in their digital storytelling outputs. Getting your campaign promoted by the biggest names is great, but this isn’t always realistic or achievable, nor is it always the best way to reach your audience. Increasingly, NGO’s are working within local influencer networks that are specifically relevant to the target audience.

Our latest video project with UNICEF Burkina Faso features children interviewing their (celebrity) role models. For example, Alyah, an 8-year old who aspires to be a singer, meets Hawa Bousimm, a popular artist in the country. The videos are specifically aimed at children to encourage and inspire them to pursue their dreams and aspirations. The videos will be promoted by the celebrities through their own social media networks, which will ultimately further the reach of the campaign as well as encouraging Burkinabe youngsters to engage with the content.

As is true for all digital storytelling techniques, influencer marketing can be used most effectively when it is applied in an innovative format. ActionAid UK implemented their #BrutalCut campaign by interrupting social influencer videos with a short message from a Kenyan girl who faces FGM. The message appeared without explanation or warning – a ‘brutal cut’ – with the video linking viewers to a website where they could cut the message into their own social media content.

As well as working on literal and metaphorical levels, the ‘Brutal Cut’ campaign exercised influence on its audience in two main ways; firstly, the viewer was already engaged when the cut appeared meaning the campaign already had an engaged audience ready and waiting. Secondly, vloggers exert a powerful influence over their followers; by showing their support for the campaign, audiences were persuaded do to the same.

Alongside influencer marketing the ‘cut’ was aired on festival screens, cinema adverts, as well as high profile celebrities and online publishers such as LadBible and Pretty 52, cutting into their own content. The campaign was so successful that ActionAid secured unprecedented levels of lottery funding and had a combined online reach of over 152 million people.

If you are considering producing any of the content discussed in this article, feel free to get in touch for more insight and information.

Storytelling for change

Storytelling for change.

Most people can think back to a time when a film has resonated with them to the point of making them think or feel differently about an issue. When it comes to filmmaking for development, organisations can utilise the power of storytelling though film to support and inspire real change. Here we talk a little more on the significance of storytelling and film as a medium to motivate change.

The aim of films for development is to create content that affects and moves an audience to point of inspiring action. The challenge lies in engaging an audience in the first instance so they will immerse themselves in the world you are portraying; audiences want to be entertained and enlightened simultaneously.

"Storytelling involves not the assertation of power over others, but the vital capacity of people to work together to create, share and affirm something that is held in common."

— Bourdieu.

Navigating uncertainty.

The world we live in is full of uncertainty, therefore audiences look to documentaries and other visual media to inform them and provide answers. This could be one reason why in recent years there has been a noticeable shift towards audiences engaging with films that promote a cause. The hugely successful film Blackfish, which highlights the ill-treatment of Orca’s in captivity, lead to huge public outcry, forcing SeaWorld to overhaul their policies and operations. Alongside the focus issue of the film, Blackfish also brought the cause of animal welfare to the agenda of the global public. For development and humanitarian organisations this presents an exciting opportunity to get their messages out to the world through film, in a time when audiences are demonstrating higher levels of engagement in cause-based media. None the less, having a cause to shout about is only half the battle. The success of films like Blackfish are not down to the relevance or importance of the issue they’re portraying, there are countless worthy causes in the world, but it the causes that get turned into great stories which are the ones that get heard.

Development and humanitarian organisations deal with extreme crisis situations that many people would be unable to fathom or connect with being just told the facts of a situation. Therefore it is the task of filmmakers like ourselves to connect facts with emotion. To do this successfully relies on creating interesting narratives, told through strong characters that an audience can empathise with. Often films for change will be communicating the stories of communities and people who have starkly different cultural and political realities to the audience, therefore it is vital that the audience is given the opportunity to relate to the characters represented on an emotional level. Additionally, for the subjects of the film, the ability to tell their story can be healing in itself in that their suffering is no longer in silence; it re-empowers them.

"Now more than ever before, audiences are seeking characters they can connect with, heroes they can relate to, cultural revelations."

— Jon Fitzgerald.

Storytelling confronts stigma.

It is through the sharing of stories that we enable dialogue and discussion around issues, often issues that had previously divided people or that people felt unable to discuss publicly. For example, a big issue for humanitarian organisations is tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS as well as the stigma attached to those who live with the virus. This year we made a film for ITPC celebrating the achievements of HIV activism, taking a retrospective look backwards at the journey. As the film moves through the 1980’s to the present we can see how the stories being told around the issue have progressed over the years. The telling of stories has slowly encouraged more discussion around the issue which in turn has lead to less stigma, a greater understanding of HIV/AIDS, as well as better responses when dealing the disease.

It is through storytelling that we can re-establish our sense of community with one and other and take a more collaborative approach to engineering positive change in the world.

'Social-experiment' for social good

The ‘social-experiment’ for social good: how the format is driving fresh perspectives and large audiences to familiar topics.

Hidden camera ‘social-experiment’ videos are generating multi-million views on social media – with audiences sharing them extensively among their networks. The increasing popularity of this style presents an exciting avenue for NGOs looking to engage audiences as part of their digital outreach strategy.  In collaboration with UNICEF Somalia, Reelmedia Film produced its own: ‘The real price of water’ – a project that garnered 26m hits worldwide.

Here, we talk about the format, our approach to making the video and why it proved so popular.

With so much of today’s media consumed in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fragments, NGOs are confronted with the challenge of creating content that holds viewer’s attention and rises above the noise of existing competition. Video content on platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter run into the seconds rather than the minutes and while still passionate about long-form documentary, audiences on social media seek instant engagement that is personalised and relatable.

It is with these demands in mind that forward-thinking organisations are turning towards the ‘social experiment’ video – a versatile medium, well-suited to social media platforms.

The format, which involves confronting an ‘ordinary’ member of the public with an unexpected challenge or situation, presents hard-to-reach subjects in an engaging and accessible manner. Convictions are overturned as participants and viewers pause their daily routine to tackle uncomfortable realities. UNICEF’s previous project Would you stop if you saw this child in the street? demonstrated the efficacy of the approach, when it captured pedestrians’ reactions to Anona, a six-year-old actor dressed in the clothes of a street-child. The hostility that UNICEF documented on film, highlighted ingrained societal prejudice and received millions of views online, as well as widespread coverage in the international press.

It became clear that the ‘social-experiment’ video has the potential as a powerful format for raising awareness and enacting change.

An exciting opportunity for NGO’s to ride the wave of popularity.

Creating our own 'social-experiment'.

In 2017, we worked with UNICEF Somalia to produce our own ‘social-experiment’ video, The real price of water’ which went viral and won two awards in the Lovies 2018. Our ambition was to bring the reality of the distance that Somali children must walk each day to a Western audience.

Setting up a stall in a crowded public place, the first element of our filmed experiment was to replace the monetary value of a bottle of water with a different currency; kilometres. Initially confused participants were then encouraged to walk the requisite distance on a nearby treadmill. Numerous members of the public refused but some accepted the challenge. Having walked their assigned journeys in the heat of summer, participants were presented with their purchase. Those who took a gulp at the water were shocked upon finding that the list of ‘ingredients’ included water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

“Would you feel comfortable drinking this water?” the stall-holder asks one woman who is about to drink her bottle of water.

‘Uh…no,’ she replies.

The ‘social experiment’ allowed us to place members of the public in the shoes of the children who do have to walk long distances for water, only to collect water that contains deadly diseases. What had seemed like the common street-stall selling water was transformed into a striking experiment in empathy for others far removed from the comforts of the Western world.

The real price of water went viral, with 26million views worldwide.

Going viral.

Much work was also carried out after delivery to ensure the hard-hitting message of the film gained as much exposure as possible. Supported by a dedicated PR team, work included liaising with regional UNICEF offices across the globe, utilising social influencers as well as engaging popular online platforms such as Buzzfeed and AJ+.

The international success of The real price of water points to the potential for further projects that utilise public participation to create videos that are worthy of widespread sharing. The element of empathy and the encouragement of new ways of thinking, in ‘social-experiment’ films, demonstrates just how well the format corresponds with the aims and objectives of development and humanitarian organisations.

If you have any questions relating to this article, or would like to discuss how Reelmedia Film can help with your organisations’ communication objectives, please do not hesitate to get in touch.