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.