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Better Online Storytelling


Roger Burks, Mercy Corps
rburks@mercycorps.org




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
serve.

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:

•  Think
•  Feel
•  Care
How do you do that?


You tell them a story.
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
help.

In most cases our stories focus
on a beneficiary.

Why?
PEOPLE RELATE TO OTHER PEOPLE - NOT
PROGRAMS.

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.”

Or…
“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
receiving.

“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
questions…
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
     notes?
     Do feel passionate about
• 
     the story?


If you’re not committed to the
story, the readers will know.
2. Does the story have a
heartbeat?

     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
     someone on?
     Do you care about
• 
     knowing what happens to
     the character?

Don’t be afraid to place
yourself in the story.
3.  Is the story
transformative?

     Three-act structure:
• 
     introduction, struggle,
     solution (or resolution)
     Are the challenges or
• 
     issues clear?
     Is it believable and
• 
     honest?

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
organization?

     Know your audience: who
• 
     are you talking to?
     Do you have an
• 
     organizational voice? Who
     is it?
     How does this fit in with
• 
     your organization’s other
     stories?

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
expiration date?

     Are there elements that
• 
     will quickly date the
     story’s impact?
     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
something?

     Is the story inspirational
• 
     and the character
     memorable?
     Is there a clear course of
• 
     action that can be taken
     after reading the story?
     How easy is it to take that
• 
     action?

What do you want the reader
to do? What kind of story do
you need to write to
accomplish that?
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?
mercycorps.org
•  1,602 stories
•  $8.7 million raised
online in FY08
•  $35.4 million raised
online over last five
years
•  3,880 active online
monthly givers
•  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
donor.
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)
A difference-maker
In the case of our
fundraising campaign
to help survivors of last
year’s earthquake in
China, first-time
donors commented
that stories about our
ongoing work in
Sichuan Province
helped convince them
to give. The expertise
that we demonstrated
through stories and
pictures made a multi-
million dollar
difference.
Conclusions from the storytelling approach


•  High-touch messaging and compelling visuals produce
results
•  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




                       From www.stevenberlinjohnson.com

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Better Online Storytelling from NTEN's 2009 Nonprofit Technology Conference

  • 1. Better Online Storytelling Roger Burks, Mercy Corps rburks@mercycorps.org 2009 Nonprofit Technology Conference San Francisco, California April 27, 2009
  • 2. 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…
  • 3. 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
  • 4. Action is at the heart of what we all do - it’s the step that connects our constituents to those we serve. 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: •  Think •  Feel •  Care
  • 5. How do you do that? You tell them a story.
  • 6. 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 help. In most cases our stories focus on a beneficiary. Why?
  • 7. PEOPLE RELATE TO OTHER PEOPLE - NOT PROGRAMS. 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.” Or…
  • 8. “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 receiving. “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.”
  • 9. 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 questions…
  • 10. 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 notes? Do feel passionate about •  the story? If you’re not committed to the story, the readers will know.
  • 11. 2. Does the story have a heartbeat? 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 someone on? Do you care about •  knowing what happens to the character? Don’t be afraid to place yourself in the story.
  • 12. 3.  Is the story transformative? Three-act structure: •  introduction, struggle, solution (or resolution) Are the challenges or •  issues clear? Is it believable and •  honest? 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.
  • 13. 4. Does it sound like my organization? Know your audience: who •  are you talking to? Do you have an •  organizational voice? Who is it? How does this fit in with •  your organization’s other stories? 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.
  • 14. 5. Does it have an expiration date? Are there elements that •  will quickly date the story’s impact? 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.
  • 15. 6. Will it make the reader want to do something? Is the story inspirational •  and the character memorable? Is there a clear course of •  action that can be taken after reading the story? How easy is it to take that •  action? What do you want the reader to do? What kind of story do you need to write to accomplish that?
  • 16. 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
  • 17. So, how do you know this approach works? mercycorps.org •  1,602 stories •  $8.7 million raised online in FY08 •  $35.4 million raised online over last five years •  3,880 active online monthly givers •  250K page views per month - 100K unique visitors (goes up to 1 million views and 375K unique in emergency)
  • 18. 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 donor.
  • 19. 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%)
  • 20. •  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)
  • 21. A difference-maker In the case of our fundraising campaign to help survivors of last year’s earthquake in China, first-time donors commented that stories about our ongoing work in Sichuan Province helped convince them to give. The expertise that we demonstrated through stories and pictures made a multi- million dollar difference.
  • 22. Conclusions from the storytelling approach •  High-touch messaging and compelling visuals produce results •  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
  • 23. We Are Media, indeed – a bright future From www.stevenberlinjohnson.com

Editor's Notes

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