Mallory Russell of MediaPosts’s Video Insider recently published this post profiling the rise of emotionally engaging visual storytelling by nonprofits, deeming 2014 as “the year of the nonprofit in branded video.”  I’m all for that. The data supporting visual storytelling as one of the most effective ways to engage an audience is the reason we always have visual storytelling as an essential in our tool box for client solutions. Important to note, the creation of an effective video to help nonprofits tell their story in a way that connects with its desired audience is just one step in a labyrinth of “musts” to impact the bottom line of the organization.

As Mallory reported, the viewership scoreboard of total views for the top-viewed or viral nonprofit brand videos has already surpassed last year’s cream of the crop:

“What’s interesting in 2014 is that we’ve seen an influx of successful branded videos from charities very early in the year. In the first three months of the year, the industry has seen five campaigns surpass 10 million views. That’s the same number of nonprofit campaigns that surpassed 10 million views in the whole of 2013.”

While the viewership numbers are no doubt extremely impressive, I couldn’t help but consider all the other things that weigh in on deeming these nonprofit viral videos a “success.” My mind started to race. “What is the goal of this video for this organization?” “How are they measuring success?” “What impact did the videos have driving traffic to their sites and how did the organization convert them?” “What budget did they have for the video and the campaign as a whole?” “What is the ROI?”

And now my quest begins, as unbeknownst to Mallory, I’m taking the baton from her thought-provoking post and going on a journey to dig a bit deeper in a way that can really paint a picture of what these videos did in the context of the respective campaigns.

Let’s start the journey by embedding the five nonprofit viral videos Russell described in her post for you to view below. I’ve added my commentary and questions that came to mind that I’m now off to go answer.

Most Shocking Second a Day – Save the Children UK – According to Russell’s post, this is the most watched PSA of 2014 to date, approaching nearly 30 million views at the time of this post in April.

The organization: Save the Children UK – A UK-based nonprofit that works in 120 countries to do what its name suggests. Syria is a particular area of focus and the focus of this spot.

The gist: A young blissful girl who enjoys the day-to-day joys of “normalcy” has her life transformed by a conflict that slowly evolves in the background to a point where the smile is turned in to a permanent frown of a scarred-for-life kid.

Why it works: A unique close up point of view of the girl in the foreground is startling and while this point of view stays consistent throughout, the background transformation invites you to lean forward to try and discern where this story line is going.  The spot also follows a central tenant for playing on the science of the brain – contrast and symmetry.  The stark contrast between the front half of the spot and the back half are memorable (smile vs frown). The color saturation helps underscore this contrast.  Additionally, “the start strong, finish strong, because few remember the middle” applies here. The symmetry of opening and closing with a close up shot of a girl about to make a wish for a birthday candle is memorable. The same shot book-ending the spot has a completely different meaning.

The visceral journey of taking a UK-based every man’s daughter taps in to the emotional and universally shared chord of being a parent.  It’s a neat hook to take the own backyard approach and tie it in to something happening elsewhere. I particularly liked the message “just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” The one criticism I’d have is that the tie to how you can help children in Syria is weak.  This spot plays better as a tie to the nonprofits universal mission of saving children in 120 countries. There is nothing that really ties it to Syria in a memorable way.

Questions it inspired: What was the budget on this piece? What impact has it had on the bottom line for donations for the organization? What impact has it had on the increase in traffic to Save The Children UK’s site? Has there been a challenge converting the traffic specifically to giving for the program in Syria?
What am I going to do about it?: Reach out to the executive director of the organization and ask the above questions.

Will it crush?  A video promotion to entice viewers, nay, fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger, to enter to win a chance to drive his armored tank and crush stuff like you did in your imagination with your Lego set as a kid.

The organization: – which is actually a for-profit company – is a website that offers once-in-a-lifetime celebrity experiences in raffle format that benefit social causes.

The gist: Arnold Schwarzenegger invites viewers who win to drive his Army tank and get rid of their angst by crushing any objects they desire. The spot is a promo/call-to-action to enter to win a contest at that will benefit his charity of choice – After School All-Stars.

Why it works: Visuals of crushing things – from giant eggs to bubble wrap – it’s hard not to watch.  The contrast of taking a military vehicle and having it applied to harmless, juvenile machismo pranks is just plain entertaining. It’s a pretty good hook as you are left thinking “what the hell is this for?”

Questions it inspired: The first was a statement – a reminder. Remember, you  may not be the target market, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. “Does any one else see this and not think about Arnold’s infidelity issue?” “What kind of revenue and entries did this originate?” What impact are video promos having on Omaze? What was the digital marketing strategy for this campaign? What’s next?”

What I’m going to do about it: I’m reaching out to Ryan Cummins and Matt Pohlson, the co-founders of Omaze to dig in on how this campaign played out from a results standpoint and digging in on other success stories.

“Dear Future Mom” is a campaign from Europe’s national Down syndrome association, CoorDown, that uses an emotional hook to quell parents’ fears about what lies ahead on the journey.

The organization: CoorDown is the Italian-based Coordinator of the National Association of people with Down syndrome and a guiding force behind World Down Syndrome Day, which was held on March 21.

The gist: Ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi recorded 15 different Down syndrome children responding to an email from a  future mother of a to-be-born Down syndrome baby about what might lay ahead in her journey as a mom.

Why it works: The approach of stitching together a collection of video responses for a cohesive narrative is borderline trite at this point in time. However, the hook of specifically children with Down syndrome helping to bring to life each of the emotionally touching responses of logical questions adds a unique angle. The contrast of anticipated sadness from an expectant mother is met by glowing happiness in a way that only video can provide. Personally, the piano music track competed at times and even distracted from the emotionally moving message, but apparently not enough to discourage the social sharing that occurred to put this video over five million views at the time of this post. The payoff of the children asking a rhetorical question to their respective mothers with each mom entering the frame to show unconditional and striking spontaneous love is a deal closer for this video as it creates a visceral journey for any mom, or even dad for that matter.

Questions it inspired: What was the goal of this campaign? How are they measuring success? What action were they trying to get their audience to engage in? What would’ve happened if the music was less competitive with the narrative?

Next steps for me: Pass it on to my friends who have children with Down syndrome and get their take on it.

“Would you give your jacket to Johannes?” is a Norwegian campaign to call attention for the help needed for children of Syria.

The organization: SOS Children’s Village Norway – it is a worldwide organization that helps provide quality alternative care for children who cannot live with their biological families.

The gist: A relatively young boy sits at a bus stop on a typical cold, snowy day in Norway but is under-dressed and conspicuously missing a jacket. A hidden camera is rolling to capture strangers’ reactions.

Why it works: There is nothing new about the hidden camera voyeur approach to engaging an audience. However, the twist here is the use of contrast (no jacket in middle of winter) with an emotional pull (a child) all meant to strike the visceral reaction of “what would I do if I was standing there?” The natural allure of the spot, which uses an effective mix of music to pull you through is the payoff of how others will react. It uses the same technique as the “Most Shocking Second A Day” video up above and coincidentally for the same area of the world – Syria. It uses a “local” hook to try to bring relevance and take you from your backyard to another region of the world hitting the “how does this relate to me?” question.

Questions it inspired: “How the heck do I find the English version? (note: there is a nice directional to use the closed caption English titles).” “What is this organization asking me to do – lend a coat?” Personally, this one didn’t strike a chord with me as much as I felt it was too staged, even though it claims not to be. I also was left wondering about how this actually tied in to helping children in Syria, but to their credit, i did click through to learn more about the site. Again, i want to know how success was measured on this.

Next steps for me: Remind myself that this isn’t “me marketing.” Just because something doesn’t personally resonate with me doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely effective with its desired targeted audience.

Mallory’s final spotlighted nonprofit video was from the Canadian Institute of Diversity which used this video to combat anti-gay sentiments leading up to the Sochi Olympics.

The organization: Canadian Institute of Diversity

The gist of the video: Two anonymous male lugers go through their start routine from various camera angles set to Human League’s 1982 hit “Don’t You Want Me Baby.”  The sexual implications of their moves are over the top and set to this song are tapping in to shock appeal. The spot payoff includes a two-board graphic that states “The Games have always been a little gay.” and then morphs to “Let’s keep them that way.”

Why it works: Shock appeal and dry wit. Taking a scene from the Olympics and providing a completely different context forces you to take notice and bait you in to wondering, “how is this going to payoff?”. The brevity of the two statements offers a neat twist on something we’re all familiar with, but that first graphic just grabs you almost as much as the imagery. It’s colloquial tone has all kinds of interpretations and tees up the pay-off in a very strong way.

As you can see by the debates over same-sex marriage in the States right now, this topic is one that usually has extremely strong opinions regardless of which side of the debate you sit on. This spot’s high traffic plays in to the fact that gay rights’ activists can use this video as a rallying cry and opponents will view because of the controversy it creates.

Questions it inspired:  What other elements were there to this campaign? What impact has it had for the Canadian Institute of Diversity’s goals? What were the tangible goals? What traditional media buzz has this campaign generated?

Next steps for me: Share it in our weekly staff meeting as an example of several striking visual media “successes.”

If you’ve got nonprofit video campaigns to share, send them my way! Stay tuned for a follow-up post, as I’ve set some work to do to share more with you.

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Jay Sharman

About Jay Sharman

Founder & CEO

Jay Sharman co-founded TeamWorks Media in 2000 on the premise that various communication mediums would eventually converge and that this thing... More


  • kate raphael on Nov 21, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    HI Jay — I love this post. Did you ever get answers to your questions?

  • Jay Sharman on Nov 23, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Thanks Kate. I’ve connected with some of the organizations but have had mixed results in getting info. Thanks for the nudge!

  • Jonny Bramwell on Feb 23, 2015 at 6:18 am

    I really liked this post, thanks very much, I’d love to hear the answers to your questions too. Have you seen the Kids Company video for their xmas campaign last year?

    • Jay Sharman on Feb 23, 2015 at 8:07 am

      I hadn’t. Thanks for sharing!
      Working on follow-up post to do just what you asked. Stay tuned!

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