Transcript of "Better Online Storytelling from NTEN's 2009 Nonprofit Technology Conference"
Better Online Storytelling
Roger Burks, Mercy Corps
2009 Nonprofit Technology Conference
San Francisco, California
April 27, 2009
Why is writing important to our organizations?
• To engage our constituents and attract donors
• To inform of news and events
• To report back and show accountability
• To define who we are
• And, most importantly…
TO PERSUADE. Our main task in online
communicators is to persuade our readers to:
• Give a donation
• Volunteer their time
• Spread the word about what we’re doing
• Take other action on our behalf
Action is at the heart of what we all do - it’s the
step that connects our constituents to those we
But how do we get that anonymous person sitting
behind a computer screen to make that commitment
and take action?
You first have to make them:
At Mercy Corps, we look at
most of our public
communication as storytelling -
and those stories tell who were
are, what we do and who we
In most cases our stories focus
on a beneficiary.
PEOPLE RELATE TO OTHER PEOPLE - NOT
Which is the more compelling story to you?
“Mercy Corps Congo prevents morbidity and mortality by
providing lifesaving services to both displaced families and
the general population, fill gaps in water and sanitation
services when needed, and advocates for improved
services within the humanitarian coordination units.”
“Her name is Laurene. She lives in a church.
She is 10 years old.
“She is among thousands of children who
have taken refuge in urban Goma's gritty
neighborhoods rather than risk dangers in
the camps. They're being housed in
churches, schools, community centers and
other public buildings - but they're neither
getting the food nor most of the other
assistance that those in the camps are
“Mercy Corps has stepped up to fill the void
and meet at least three of their most critical
needs: clean water, sanitation and hygiene…
but it's not easy to explain why we didn't
bring food today.
“So Laurene sits quietly on a church pew, in
the place she now calls home, and waits for
something to eat.”
Some studies show that you have less than one
minute to convince an online reader that your piece
is worth reading.
YOUR JOB: Connect your readers to a name, a face
and a compelling story as quickly as possible.
But how do you do that? Ask yourself these
1. Is this a story that I
want to tell?
Would you tell this story
to your non-work friends?
Do you remember at least
some parts of the story
without looking at your
Do feel passionate about
If you’re not committed to the
story, the readers will know.
2. Does the story have a
Is there a human
character at the center of
the story? A sense of
place, time and urgency?
Is there an emotional pull
- do you find yourself
engaged or cheering
Do you care about
knowing what happens to
Don’t be afraid to place
yourself in the story.
3. Is the story
solution (or resolution)
Are the challenges or
Is it believable and
The story’s conclusion doesn’t
have to be cut-and-dried. If
the outcome is negative, don’t
sugar-coat it. Again, don’t
hesitate to use your own
feelings or observations.
4. Does it sound like my
Know your audience: who
are you talking to?
Do you have an
organizational voice? Who
How does this fit in with
your organization’s other
At Mercy Corps, we never use
the word “victim” in any of our
stories; instead, we say
“survivor.” That single word
choice is very important.
5. Does it have an
Are there elements that
will quickly date the
Will the story be just as
relevant a year from now?
Be careful to avoid becoming
a culture of press releases.
Those tell people what you’re
doing, but don’t help establish
your identity or relevance.
Stories help you build up
evidence for why people
should support you.
6. Will it make the
reader want to do
Is the story inspirational
and the character
Is there a clear course of
action that can be taken
after reading the story?
How easy is it to take that
What do you want the reader
to do? What kind of story do
you need to write to
Five specific elements of a good online story
1. Compelling title
2. Intriguing lead or hook
“Doug Haywood is the crab in the
gumbo. And Mercy Corps is helping
stir the pot.”
3. Good story-specific photos
4. Character-driven details
“It might look like any other school
day for 14-year-old Bosco Odongo…
the truth is, though, he's never been
to school before.”
5. Ways to take action
Donation links, a petition, newsletter
sign-ups, social networking tools
So, how do you know this approach works?
• 1,602 stories
• $8.7 million raised
online in FY08
• $35.4 million raised
online over last five
• 3,880 active online
• 250K page views per
month - 100K unique
visitors (goes up to 1
million views and 375K
unique in emergency)
Numbers compared to other organizations
From a recent benchmarking conference with 12
other non-governmental organizations
• Mercy Corps receives 43% of its mass-market revenue
online; group average is 17%
• $150 annual revenue per online donor - about 20%
higher than group average
• Donor age - 48% of Mercy Corps online donors are 44
years old or younger; group average is 35%. These
younger donors also gave at a higher level: the 35-44
age group averaged $165 annual revenue per online
Zimbabwe Cholera – news story Mongolia – storytelling approach
Google AdWords campaign Google AdWords campaign
Bounce rate: 86.4% Bounce rate: 65.7%
Similar results for Darfur (75%) Similar results for India (41.7%)
• Sent 9/13/07 to 102,000 people • Sent 9/13/07 to 12,700 people
• 15,119 opens, 505 clicks • 2,677 opens, 193 clicks
• $12,443 in donations • $6,837 in donations
• 6.5% conversion rate (33 donors) • 46% conversion rate (89 donors)
In the case of our
to help survivors of last
year’s earthquake in
that stories about our
ongoing work in
helped convince them
to give. The expertise
that we demonstrated
through stories and
pictures made a multi-
Conclusions from the storytelling approach
• High-touch messaging and compelling visuals produce
• Higher-value, younger donors
• Existing site content demonstrates capacity,
establishes identity and sets the stage for more robust
emergency giving campaigns
• More success converting one-time and emergency
donors to online monthly givers (sustainers)
• More visits to site and lower bounce rates
• Higher conversion rates and more donations
• A better-informed, more engaged constituency
We Are Media, indeed – a bright future