Create a Nonprofit Online Storytelling Campaign in 9 Simple Steps

Planning, Implementation, Evaluation

Man amazed at online story.
Nicolas McComber/E+/Getty Images

What do great journalists know that you may not?

They understand how well-told human interest stories hook readers and viewers despite their short attention spans.

Journalists have been using storytelling techniques for decades. Just look at the front page of any major newspaper or magazine — it is chock full of compelling, personal stories, designed to draw readers in and hold them.

Why Storytelling?

Storytelling is how humans communicate with each other, the way that we make sense of complex information, and how we relay our experiences to others.

Nonprofit storytelling can motivate people to pay attention and take action. Emotional, appealing stories can build an online audience for your nonprofit.

So how can you create a successful online storytelling campaign? Here is a 9-step guide. 

1. Define Success

A storytelling campaign has three phases: planning, implementation, and evaluation. In the planning stage, you need to articulate the goal of the storytelling campaign clearly.

Design each campaign for a defined purpose and to accomplish a specific goal. You may need to carry out multiple storytelling campaigns per month to achieve your goal, or perhaps just one per quarter, depending on your resources.

To know that your storytelling campaign was successful, you must define the reasons that you are creating it in the first place. Questions to answer include:

  • What will it look like if we are successful with our storytelling campaign?
  • Why dedicate our already strained resources to collecting, crafting, and sharing this story?
  • Will it tie in with our current or future fundraising efforts?
  • Do we want to get the word out about a new program or service to draw in more clients?
  • Are we aiming to raise awareness and change social behavior?

Once you define the action that you want people to take, you can determine who is most likely to take that action, and the emotional storytelling hooks to get them to do so.

2. Select Your Audience

Your audience is not everyone on the planet. Seth Godin wrote in his fantastic book “All Marketers Are Liars” that to be a great marketer you have to be a great storyteller. However, to be a great storyteller, you have to accept the fact that your story will not appeal to everyone.  

So, what segment of the population do you want to reach with your story? Who will take the action that you desire — the action that will get you closer to your goals, as defined in step one?

Imagine a member of this target audience stumbling upon your nonprofit story in their email inbox or their Facebook News Feed. Would it catch their eye and entice them to watch or click to read more?

You cannot choose the type of story until know whom you are telling it to and how you want to make them feel.   

EXAMPLE: PETA goes for the jugular with its emotional, graphic content of injured and abused animals on its blog. The organization understands its audience and what will get a reaction, and provides it through visual stories.

3. Choose a Story Type

After you have clearly laid out the goals of the storytelling campaign and the target audience, you can then start brainstorming the best possible kind of story to tell.

There are five main types of stories that nonprofits can collect and develop — value stories, social proof stories, founder stories, resilience/continuous improvement stories, and impact stories. 

The most popular storytelling type is the impact story. This kind of story is the meat and bones of who you are and why you exist. This story does not focus on your organization, but rather the impact that you have on the world around you.

What would happen if you closed your doors tomorrow? Answer that question with an impact story.

EXAMPLE: The U.S. Surgeon General was so moved by a story of a person helped by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program that he shared the moving story on his Facebook page.

4. Collect the Story

Instead of writing the story “collect” it. Only your imagination limits the options for collecting a story.

You can choose to tell the story via video (professional or amateur), a photo gallery, a blog post, an Instagram caption, and more. 

If you plan to share the story on social media channels, a video is by far the most engaging and widely shared form of content. If you intend to write an in-depth blog post with photos, more planning may be involved than simply taking out your phone and pressing record.

Plan to collect the story in a variety of ways to give yourself options when selecting the channels on which to share it, which is the next step.

5. Choose Your Online Channels

Congratulations — you now have a compelling, gripping, emotional story to share with the world. Where you want to share it matters, because each online platform has its own etiquette, rules, and best practices. Gone are the days when you can just cut and paste the link into ten social media sites.

The story needs to be molded and formatted for each channel on which you choose to broadcast. The good news is that a great story can be repackaged and repurposed to reach even more potential supporters.

For example, you record a short testimonial from a client on your smartphone. That video file can be uploaded to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can embed it on your blog. The link to it can be included, with a clickable screenshot, in your email bulletin.

Choose the digital channels based on where you are already active, your staff capacity to manage, and your audience. Ask these three questions when selecting a new online platform:

  • Is your target audience engaged there?
  • Can you do something different on this channel? Can you add unique value? 
  • Do you have the staff capacity to learn the language and etiquette of a new channel, to create content consistently, to respond and participate, and to measure and improve?

6. Create Your Visuals

Each and every story you tell and share needs an accompanying visual, in the form of a photo, graphic, or video. (Or all three, if you are ambitious!)

Do a quick inventory of any and all visuals that you have at your organization. What can you repurpose and edit, and what do you still need to create?

There are many free and low-cost tools available to nonprofits for creating eye-catching visuals and video (no reason to pull your hair out trying to understand PhotoShop!).

Some of the most popular visual marketing tools are Canva, Animoto, and Exposure. Canva allows even non-techies to design formatted and perfectly sized social media graphics, blog photos, infographics, and more.

Animoto aims to help individuals and brands create short animated videos very simply — no video editing knowledge needed.

Exposure is a mobile-optimized online platform where brands can collect and share multiple stories around one issue or topic. Its beautiful aesthetic combined with ease-of-use make it an incredibly powerful tool for nonprofits.

7. Share and Promote Your Story

Getting that great story is just half the battle. Just because you created it does not mean anyone will go to your website, or Facebook Page, or YouTube Channel, to read or view it.

Sharing is the implementation phase of the campaign — where you have your story ready to go, and you need to get it on as many channels as possible for the most engagement and reach.

Use scheduling tools like Buffer and Hootsuite to make sure you are promoting your story while you sleep and work.

One expert, John Haydon, suggests organizing a nonprofit marketing or storytelling campaign using the 1-10 rule. For every story that you tell on your website and blog, publish ten social media posts and tweets.

The updates should be snippets or quotes from the story and a link back to the source. A link ensures that the tremendous effort you invest in collecting, crafting, and telling each story goes much further than a single blog post or email bulletin.

Consider putting some money behind your storytelling campaign by experimenting with Facebook Ads. You can promote a post on your Facebook Page and get more of your fans and their friends to see it, or you can create a standalone ad to reach even more of your target audience. Make sure to track the results, tweaking, and improving as you go.

One of my favorite aspects of using online marketing tools and Facebook ads, in particular, is that your target audience tells you if your storytelling campaign resonates with them. They will say to you via clicks, likes, shares, retweets, and comments so that you can make changes as you go.  

EXAMPLE: The nonprofit 1,000 Days frequently uses Facebook Ads to promote its eye-catching pictures and stories, to draw people to the website where they can learn more, or sign up to get involved and make a donation.

8. Evaluate and Celebrate Your Success

Evaluation improves your storytelling campaigns. At the end of the campaign, reflect on the process and think about things you could have done it all differently. What worked and what didn’t work? What did you learn?   

Did you achieve success? Go back to step one where you determined your goals. Hold yourself accountable and also pat yourself on the back if the campaign went well.

9. Plan Your Next Campaign

The content beast of online marketing and social media is always hungry for new stories. Build on the success of your storytelling campaign and use the momentum created to plan and carry out a new campaign.

In conclusion, nonprofits need to stop thinking that all they need to reach supporters is a great mission statement and an important cause.

Traditional marketing avenues are no longer enough to cut through the online clutter and motivate people to action. Storytelling puts a human, personal element into your marketing and creates a powerful way to deepen the connection with your audience, as well as bringing new supporters into the fold.  

Julia Campbell advises nonprofits large and small about social media, storytelling, and fundraising.