The Digital Naturalist is an inspired forum for video, film, and multimedia with a cause. It brings together an elite panel of experts to analyze what makes digital storytelling successful, establish helpful guidelines for advocacy groups, and shine a light on the most effective and inspiring work being produced today. Through analysis, forums, interviews, and personal accounts, we hope to help nonprofit organizations and the creatives working with them better communicate the most pressing, complex issues of our time.

Try This!

If your video is comprised of interviews, try to get your b-roll after you’ve recorded all or most of the interviews. The reason is that inevitably the people interviewed will say certain things that may inspire the kind of b-roll you’ll want to shoot. Read more bladeronner.com.


Entries in advocacy video analysis (4)


20 Reasons Why KONY 2012 is the Most Viral Advocacy Video Ever

By Amy Marquis and Tucker Walsh

80 million views on YouTube. 17 million views on Vimeo. Coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, on major cable news networks and The Daily Show. Backing from superstars like George Clooney, Shepard Fairey, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhianna.

No matter what the critics say about KONY 2012-- a powerful new campaign making its debut with a 30-minute film-- there's no denying that Invisible Children has created the most viral advocacy video ever. It's a stunning example of the power of video to amplify a nonprofit's message.

Still, it took me a couple weeks to reflect on this video (and all the heated debates it generated) before I knew what I wanted this post to look like. I had negative reactions to the way the filmmaker handled parts of this story, and it took me some time to distance myself from those feelings and recognize that, good or bad, we advocacy video storytellers have a ton to learn from this film. And it's TDN's responsibility to help shed an objective light on those lessons.

If you're anticipating a post that reveals some magical formula for viral success, you might be disappointed. What we can offer are 20 key ingredients that contributed to the explosion of KONY 2012 (BIG THANKS to Assistant Editor Tucker Walsh for generating the majority of this list!), as well as a closer look at the consequences of some of the decisions made in this film. In the end, though, it's up to you to draw your own conclusion: Is this really the best advocacy video ever?


1. High production value. Fantastic use of After Effects; low-quality photos and video footage made attractive through slick editing techniques; cool graphic integration of Facebook and other social media "in action."

2. An intro that demands your attention. A minute-and-a-half in, filmmaker Jason Russell halts audiences with this line: "The next 27 minutes are an experiment, but in order for it to work, you have to pay attention." Riveting, right? How can you NOT keep watching? Great example of stirring curiosity in viewers (read more about the science behind this here).

3. An emotional journey. The film tugs at every emotion possible: anger, empowerment, humor, inspiration, sadness, etc-- and it balances all those emotions well, too. Feels slightly manipulative, but in a good way, as if filmmakers market-tested the video to make sure every single line did what it was designed to do.

4. Massages the viewer's ego. The first few minutes of the video are all about how the younger "social media" generation is so amazing and able to accomplish the most incredible things. This comes way before any "ask." It also makes the viewer feel good about him/herself, implanting the thought that "By doing very little, I can help accomplish something very big."

5. A generational initiative. Young people leading the cause is always "cool" and more likely to catch on. Also, the video is based around Jacob, a Ugandan teenager who appeals to the video's audience-- Western teenagers. Teens helping teens makes the cause a generational issue, not a race/religion/nationality issue.

6. A clear path. The video sets up the solution before it delivers the issue-- a tactic that has serious sway, according to the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

7. Firm, simple, achievable goals. Step 1: Raise awareness about Kony. Step 2: Arrest Kony.

8. Deadline driven. Literally sets an expiration date for the film, creating a sense of urgency and encouraging a more immediate response.

9. Simple, focused messaging. Takes a highly complex issue and makes it so easy to chew that a 5 year old can understand it. Literally. Side note: Something we're often taught in video storytelling is that the best way to communicate a message is to pretend like your describing it to a child. These guys literally did that-- kind of brilliant, but not without controversy-- see links below.

10. A well-timed release. With school still in session, clubs, chapters, and organizations can form on campuses, and the video can spread easily through word of mouth in the lunchroom/classroom. March is also a time of year when people are motivated to accomplish big things-- the long winter is over, spring is in the air, and people are eager to get out and do something. Lastly, the economy is on the rise in the U.S.; if they'd released this video during a downturn, it might not have gotten nearly as much play.

11. Scheduled revival. A planned event on April 20th guarantees the video will be in news cycle twice-- both on release of the film and on 4/20. So just as the image of Kony starts to fade, it will be back in a big way one month later. Also, blanketing the streets with posters during the middle of the night sounds like a blast-- way to make activism edgy and badass and borderline illegal-- teenagers love that shit. Better yet, Russell wasn't afraid to advertise this whole-heartedly in the video, rather than releasing a separate video or announcing this event after the Kony campaign was launched.

12. Plenty of legwork. Invisible Children makes hard work (signing pledges, buying a kit, sharing the video) easy, thanks to a catchy website that features pre-written letters to Members of Congress, social media buttons, etc.

13. User-friendly tools. The Action Kit makes advocacy fun, simple, and rewarding (hey, I'll get a gift in the mail and help arrest a warlord-- cool!). T-shirts and posters are hip, well designed, and just cheap enough for anyone to afford.

14. Good vs. Evil. The video simplifies a complicated issue to good vs. evil, one of the most common and popular storytelling formats. Side note: Some would disagree that this is a good thing-- watch a TED video about the danger of over-simplifying stories here, and check out other links on this point below.

15. Turns a depressing subject on its head. The film takes an extremely depressing topic and makes it entertaining and watchable. If you've seen the film War Dance, you'll know that KONY 2012 glosses over the graphic and heinous things these children were forced to experience (like watching their parents' heads boil in a pot). It could have been a million times more graphic and disturbing, but instead Russell chose to use PG-13 language. As a result, the viewer "gets it" without having to be traumatized.

16. Creates a brand. SUPER valuable point-- the film turns a complicated issue into a brand: KONY 2012. Brands are easy to sell, share, spread, fall in love with, etc. And it's even more genius to turn a nonprofit campaign into a brand, then create a movement that represents the interests of that brand. Branding is CRUCIAL to why KONY 2012 was so successful.

17. Establishes credibility. Halfway through the video, the filmmaker begins ticking off dozens of Invisible Children's victories from the last decade, including Barack Obama's decision in 2008 to deploy U.S. forces to help remove Joseph Kony. This allows the viewer to place more trust in IC and adds to the "feel good" aspect of the video. Side note: Interestingly enough, the nonprofit had to work hard to defend its credibility after the video became viral... read more about that fight here.

18. Appeals to a nation's identity. The video isn't just about arresting Kony. It's about creating a society we're proud to live in. Towards the end of the film, Russell says: "We have reached a crucial time in history, where what we do or don't do, right now, will affect every generation to come. Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules... we are not just studying human history-- we are shaping it." He isn't just challenging his viewers to sign a petition or write Congress-- he's challenging them to reshape the world we live in... a powerful tactic reminiscent of the Sagan Series.

19. Celebrities. Bono. Stephen Colbert. Justin Bieber. Angelina Jolie. The list goes on. Enough said. (Read more about these targeted "culture makers" here.)

20. A cumulative effect. This campaign does all of the above, and more, at once. The reason it was a SMASH hit, and not just a hit, is because it combined all of these little details. This is important. No single tactic led to its success. A dozen small decisions came together to make one powerful statement.

At this point you might be thinking, "That's great and all-- but what about the backlash?"

It's hard to celebrate the positive aspects of this campaign without also feeling the weight of its consequences. The one that stands out most to me is this: A campaign that works for social media isn't necessarily a campaign that works for the people it's trying to save. Despite all these brilliant tactics and good intentions, this film has reopened old wounds for some Ugandans, who, as one Ugandan writes, "would rather close this dark chapter of our history and move on." Read more here:

On the flip side, it's also become clear that Kony2012 is the popular kid mainstream media loves to hate. Check out two hilarious clips on The Daily Show here and here.

Regardless of the controversy, there's no question anymore that video is POWERFUL-- and every nonprofit with an important message to broadcast should take heed. Read more about this in the The New York Times.

Agree? Disagree? We want to know what YOU think of KONY 2012. Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.


The Year-End Video


I don't know about you guys, but I got inundated with year-end fundraising videos last week. My first thought was, "Wow, these groups really get it!" Then I started watching them, and to my disappointment, only one rose to the top. When I contemplated what went wrong with the others, I imagined challenges that ranged from low budgets, to a lack of advanced planning, to not having trained storytellers on staff to help guide the process or hire a talented production company.

Don't get me wrong-- I love that organizations are turning to video for these kinds of messages. But I think they should aim higher next year. Because if you can nail a video like this, you'll capture people's hearts at a time of year when "giving" is first and foremost on their minds.

Let's take two and break them down:

TNC year-end video - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

I love The Nature Conservancy. They do some really beautiful work, and its magazine team was among the first in the nonprofit world to produce compelling, high-quality videos. But this one-- which I'm guessing was not driven by the editorial team-- falls painfully short. I can just imagine the planning session: "We have to make sure we mention these six specific projects, because our board would want us to highlight those. And while we're at it, let's borrow some talking points from that press release, and reuse as much b-roll as we can to save money." But at what cost? Did this formula work? Did you feel connected? Compelled? Did the narrative answer the "So what/Who cares" questions viewers are bound to ask? Personally, I would have been much more inspired if TNC had sent out one of their super-star magazine contributors to cover one truly powerful story about a person or a community positively affected by one of the 2011 projects, rather than simply running through a laundry list of successes. In the end, however, it was the music that killed me most. Change the song to something more unique and moving, and the video would instantly be more compelling.

charity:water year-end 2011 - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

Once again, charity:water is leading the pack. This isn't my favorite of their videos-- at one point, I craved a *little* more narrative to guide me through all those beautiful visuals. If I weren't already familiar with the cause, I might have been confused. But overall, I loved the simplicity, the music, the stunning images, and the sharp, well-paced editing. This is a year-end video I'd be very proud of.

But that's just my opinion. What do you think? Which organization would you be more inclined to get behind? Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.


Panel Review: Amplify Peace

Amplify Peace - The Voice Project

My fabulous friend Katie, a lover of good causes and long-time indie film buff, brought this video to my attention, and I immediately knew it'd make a compelling panel review. Their story is so important, and their mission quite unique, but at the end of the video, despite loving so many elements of it, something left me feeling a little... dissatisfied... and not completely moved to action.

So I was very eager to hear if this week's judges felt the same-- and, as usual, their critiques are a mixed bag. Which is exactly what makes reviews like this so fascinating. As always, our promise: To be positive, honest, and constructive. Our hope: That everyone-- from creator to critic-- walks away a little wiser. Big thanks to Hunter Heaney from The Voice Project for allowing us to review this film!

Amplify Peace - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

Meet this week's judges:

  • Allie Bombach: filmmaker at Red Reel
  • Jenny Nichols: Director of Communications and Multimedia for iLCP
  • Morgan Heim: Photojournalist, multimedia producer, co-founder of CAT in WATER
  • Russell Chadwick: Emmy-nominated filmmaker, owner/CEO of Wild Collective

1. What are the video's strengths?

ALLIE: The interview shots in the video are beautiful. The song is moving, and the powerful shots in the beginning give a sense of place early on. The shot at the end is the strongest of the entire video – amazing.

JENNY: The choice of music emphasizes the weight of the challenge and the sadness of the realities of those who have been captured by the LRA. The diversity of people interviewed and the honesty that they give to the interviewer. The mission of the organization shines through in this piece. And I was hooked. I love the project and spent the next few hours reading up on it and following links around to find more stories and more action items.

MORGAN: The cause – I love the idea of using radio to give people forced to serve in the LRA a way home. The interviews – These stories will move you. I want to know more about what happened to these people. I want them to be able to come home. These interviews also make you think about the lives affected when someone becomes a soldier, rather than this idea that the soldier is just this bad guy. The raw style of shooting – It felt more genuine than something that was perfectly polished looking or shot like a cinema movie. This doesn’t always work, but for this subject matter and location of this project, it does.

RUSSELL: Great emotional subject matter. Some really nice footage. Amazing cause.

2. What did you think about the use of a single theme song all the way through? Was it connective? Cohesive?

ALLIE: The one song worked really well. I think any more music would be distracting. Although I think the timing was a little off and the lyrics lost some meaning because cuts would be in the middle of a lyric. Being that music and its message is such a strong focus of the video, I think its a priority to make it work well.

JENNY: While I mentioned the music as one of the strengths of the piece, i also felt that different music could have been used for the beginning of the piece. To use slow, soulful music for the entire piece created a mood but it also doesn’t create much forward momentum. For short messaging pieces I think it’s important to have the beginning pull in the viewer and kick start their journey through the rest of the story/message. I also wanted the text at seconds : 12-: 27 to move a bit faster – I was ready for the next descriptor before it came on the screen.

MORGAN: I thought the one song was fine for the duration of the piece. The producers did a nice job of fading the song in and out throughout the piece, so it never felt too repetitive. What I also liked about that is that it gave a this feeling of coming back full circle to the main point, which is to go check out and hopefully support The Voice Project.

That said. I’m not sure it was the right song for the piece overall. It was incongruous with the setting of the project, which for me just didn’t work in this instance. It was also an expected song style emotionally. It was just too dreamy and hopeful. I felt like I was being force fed the emotion a little bit, and not challenged. If there was a way to use more radio sound from the project itself, or music that is of the kind that the station would play, that might have helped make a more cohesive connection and really kept the focus on the project.

RUSSELL: Mumford and Sons are great, but they steal the show. If you hold a big song like that until your call to action section, you can re-invest someone’s attention and emotion to get that site visit/donation. Since the piece is about these songs they play on the radio, you kiiiiiiiinda want to hear one of them, but I get that's the obvious choice so respect for doing something a little different.

3. As the video progresses, there are a number of things going on at once-- interviews, translations, captions, text slides, and a song with lyrics that relay a powerful message. How did you handle all those different pieces? Were you able to follow along closely, or were there points where you started to feel lost?

ALLIE: The only thing I thought was distracting was the text was a little hard to read. Some of the main points were lost because of this, and I had to watch it twice to read some text. Although, I believe its powerful in this kind of video to use multiple ways to get the point across with text, visuals, and music. As long as the text is given enough time to set in the viewers mind, it can be just as powerful as video or music to successfully spread a message.

JENNY: I may have used a different text overall and tried to shift the shadowing behind the translation text so as not to cover the face of the speaker etc. but these are minor details. When dealing with text slides, interviews and translation text it’s hard to win. All of these items can be distracting and I’ve heard great feedback offering the pros and cons of all of them. The interviews were highlights for me, so the translation text is necessary. The text slides set the place and gave concrete details, which I also felt was necessary. Using text appropriately and consistently is definitely a challenge.

I do sometimes find song lyrics distracting, but that wasn’t the case here, however I didn’t really pay attention to the song lyrics until the second or third time watching the piece. To me the interviews and text slides took up all of my processing power.

MORGAN: To me the biggest distraction was anytime there were song lyrics and any other form of text or speaking that I’d have to comprehend at the same time. My brain started to battle with itself over which of the messages it was going to take in at a time, and so I invariably ended up just getting pieces of each, and started to feel frustrated. I think if the music didn’t have lyrics, that would’ve been fine, or if the music did have lyrics but the b-roll was so strong that you didn’t need interviews, that would’ve been fine. But I can’t handle the whole kitchen sink all at once.

RUSSELL: You don't need the titles up front, date and location, or the IDs in a promo piece. The only thing that matters is your message. Open by hitting the viewer with your hardest fact about the tragedy that's occurring, go to your interviews, then let them know they can make a difference in your call to action copy run at the end.

4. Action check: The filmmakers posted this video on social media sites to tell their story and raise funds for their cause. So-- did you donate? Re-post or re-tweet it? Visit their website to learn more?

ALLIE: This video made me want to learn more, so I visited the website and was taken aback by all the involvement from different artists. I would definitely spread the word for this cause. I think there would be a stronger reaction to donating with a goal orientated message though. Such as we are trying to reach this much money to get this many radio towers by this time.

JENNY: I definitely wanted to learn more. I did not donate because I ended up getting entirely enthralled with the issue and jumped around to other sites. But I should go back!

MORGAN: I didn’t post or retweet or donate, but I did think it was a really cool, refreshing, innovative idea, and I liked seeing how it was being carried out by locals on the ground. I am going to check out the project site, and I think the piece works well in the sense that it hints at what this project is all about, and raises the right kind of questions that make you want to learn more about what’s going on. And I love that this project presents itself as moving towards solution, not just telling people about a really depressing problem.

It's a great commercial for the endeavor with one major major exception. I did not know what LFA was, or where in Africa this was taking place. I took the time to look it up afterward. It left me a bit disoriented when watching the piece, and I just started filling in the gaps myself. I was thinking this was about former child soldiers in Sudan. Now that I read more about LFA, it sounds like it spans Uganda and Sudan, so I might have not been that far off. In any case, I shouldn’t have to look that up, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want people potentially associating with a different cause than the messaging of your project.

RUSSELL: I did not.

5. Fact or fiction: This group's mission and goals were illustrated clearly in this video.

ALLIE: I think the video gets across that a valuable solution is ready. “Its Working” Is a powerful message to spread to help donations. I don’t think that the entire mission of the group was in the video, but it may not be necessary to do so.

JENNY: Yes, I think the mission was well presented in the video. I had a lot of un answered questions that drove me to The Voice Project website for answers. But now that you ask, and after reading more about the mission and projects of The Voice Project on their website, I think that a few more sound bites or text slides could have been added to round out the messaging.


RUSSELL: Faction? I do get the message, but I think there is too much information in the piece that clouds the message.

6. Suggestion box: If you could offer ONE tip to improve this, what would it be?

ALLIE: Although the shots were nice, I didn’t connect with the helicopter shots. I didn’t know where they were going or why. More shots of radio towers or multiple people speaking over the radio could get the point across well here.

JENNY: I would change up the beginning a bit. Start with the text that is used in :12-:27 and have music that has a faster beat to bring the text slides in. Grab the viewer’s attention – have it be about music, and what music can do - and then boom : have the music end during text slide “End a War” and start in with the radio static and tuning audio over the first imagery of the DRC. This shifts the attention from music to issue.

MORGAN: Use a different song. I don’t want to be thinking about Dave Matthews or someone driving through the American West with the sun flashing through the trees on the promise of a new beginning and leaving troubles behind, which is what I kept envisioning.

RUSSELL: Focus your approach. All people need to know is that children are dying, but there is a solution and they can be part of that. Open with facts, let your interviews tell the story and then, not to slogan-ize genocide, but something like (these are bad examples) "let your voice be heard", "we need your voice", etc... let's your viewer know they need to take action steps.

Want to submit your advocacy video for review? Send a link to thedigitalnaturalist@gmail.com. We'll pick up panel reviews again in late October.


Sometimes Simple is Better.

By Scott Kirkwood

Amy and I have spent a lot of time trying to raise the bar for the production of multimedia pieces within our national parks nonprofit. Many of our colleagues want to go out into the parks with a Flip camera and produce a video that they’re certain will captivate viewers. Their thinking often seems to be: “The parks are beautiful, the threats facing them are serious, and anyone can use a camera—you just need to push a button and aim, right?” We’ve spent a lot of energy trying to persuade people that you need a lot more than that.

But these videos from LOVE146 show that sometimes, if your story is powerful enough and simple enough, it just might be better to turn on a camera and listen to someone talk.

A few months back, Amy shared this video with several of us, and told us she thought it was brilliant:

love146.org - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

When it comes to photography, writing, storytelling, and multimedia, Amy and I pretty much always agree. But this time, we didn’t.

I found the piece terribly depressing from the very beginning. The dreary music, the plodding pace, the imagery-- all of it brought me down. The title animation is slick, the distressed font is graphically interesting, and the sepia photos are well-conceived, but it all feels like a very corporate way to tell an otherwise human story.

And the problem is, there’s really no story. We are bombarded by numbers—27 million enslaved, 2 children sold every minute.... I’ve read a lot on what motivates people to advocacy and nearly all of it says that people are more likely to give to your cause if you share the plight of one person, not the plight of millions. A member of your audience can’t help millions, so the response is to quickly shut off. But the idea of helping one person? That’s do-able.

(Interestingly, LOVE146 tries to do this with another piece: Diana’s love story introduces us to a young girl who has been rescued from enslavement, but in blurring her face to protect her identity and translating her own words into English, we never experience the young girl directly, so the attempt fails.)

If you stick around long enough, the piece changes rhythm about two minutes through. People exchange 146 tags, we hear impassioned quotes from Martin Luther King, and then we see colorful images of children, illustrating hope and positive change. Then we’re told some very vague things about what Love146 does. Prevention, advocacy, after-care—I don’t really know what any of these things mean in concrete terms. We see a building of some sort that clearly provides schooling and care, and that tangible image helps a little.

But in the end I’m left with this vague idea that something horrible is happening to many children and some group with a weird name is doing something vague to help them. In the end, it just wasn’t enough to provoke my interest in learning more, or joining the cause. I just wanted to stop watching.

I actually think this LOVE146 video is far superior:

The Broken Heart Club - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

It’s very simple—Rob Morris, the director of LOVE146, sits before a video camera and tells a story. The sound is mediocre. The lighting is poor. A bland, grey wall serves as the background. Morris looks a little like he just woke up. But in the piece, he describes how he stood in a brothel for the first time looking into the eyes of children. He remembers trying to hold in his tears and his anger. He remembers calling his wife from his hotel. When she asked “How are you doing?” he just lost it. He “allowed his heart to break into a million pieces.” At that point, something came to life in him. Someone once told him it is the broken heart that makes us human and only once that happens can love and compassion spill out. And at that point he and the cofounders gave birth to the organization. He tells us that these stories are absolutely heartbreaking, but he celebrates that heartbreak, because it is the broken-hearted that end up changing the world.

In this brief, startlingly simple video, we learn the story of these children, the story of the director’s very personal experience, and even the story of the organization’s founding.

Because Morris starts by telling us how hard it is to deal with this subject, we’re willing to go there with him. The piece leaves us a little saddened, but with a little bit of hope. And enough curiosity to want to learn a little bit more.

Scott Kirkwood is a regular contributor to TDN.