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How to make user generated content work for you

26 May 2020

The technology we carry around has been offering huge potential for charity storytelling for some time. A potential that the sector has been increasingly embracing as seen by the fact that in the three years since Mile 91 started running smartphone filmmaking courses we have trained more than 300 people, largely from communications teams.

Given the current situation though, we think there is no better time than now to capitalise on this potential and start trusting a wider group of people – other than just your comms teams – to gather your content. Here’s how to get started…

First be clear about what user generated content is

Before starting any project using user generated content you need to be clear about what it is, the opportunities it presents and its limitations.

User generated content is any content – films, photos, blogs or audio stories – that is created for free by your wider community. For charities this can be your service users and beneficiaries but it can also be your frontline staff and volunteers. It’s important not to forget about your staff and volunteers as they have direct daily contact with your programme work and communities, plus many have great stories of their own to share.

So why should I care about it now? Well, we don’t know what the ‘new normal’ will look like but we can be fairly certain that even after lockdown eases there will be social distancing measures in place for some time. Budgets will inevitably be tighter. Scaling up your use of user generated content in day to day communications means you can save production budgets for your flagship campaigns plus your travel footprint will be reduced.

Going about gathering user generated content

There are two ways you can gather content.

You can inspire people to produce and share content using your hashtag so the content comes into your wider family of stories, but isn’t actually hosted by you. As an example, we love the content that’s coming together under #RoamSweetHome from Ramblers. Hard work will have gone into developing and launching this campaign but the majority of the images and videos are being shared by individuals.

Or you can host user generated content on your own platforms. A wonderful example of this approach is Lin’s story from Marie Curie. Lin is 63 and living with terminal cancer. The stories team at Marie Curie originally identified Lin as someone who could keep a video diary for the Great Daffodil Appeal but with the advent of Covid-19 she quickly adapted to talk about living with terminal cancer under lockdown. Although Marie Curie amplifies her story she has editorial control and decides what to share in each recording. Her story has been picked up by Channel 4, Sky and You Magazine and she even became the face of their emergency appeal.

But remember: You can like and share anything that is in the public domain but you should never lift and use without the consent of the original poster, even if they have mentioned you. If you spot a particularly talented storyteller then you could approach them but be careful how you do this. If they have a key worker ask them if it is appropriate for you to make contact, or comment on one of their posts and say you would love to chat to them about their story. Don’t use private contact details from a central database to make a cold call if they haven’t given permission to be contacted for this reason.

Be clear on your safeguarding responsibilities

If you are sharing someone’s content on your channels you have the same safeguarding responsibilities as if you or an external production team were capturing the story. If they reveal anything that is a safeguarding concern then you should address it with them directly if appropriate or escalate it through your safeguarding process if it is more serious.

They should also be fully aware of where and why their story is being shared and the things that may happen as a result, such as they may get recognised or people may make personal comments. Make sure they (or their guardian) sign a consent form to say they understand this and provide contact details so they can ask for their story to be withdrawn at any point. At the moment it is harder to get forms signed as many people do not have printers at home. For now, ask people to provide consent with an email, text message or voice note and send them a form to sign as soon as you are able to.

Ensuring good quality content

Given the circumstances we are in, people are becoming used to less polished content, even from professional broadcasters, so don’t worry about a little roughness. However, there are small things you can do to make a big difference and it doesn’t need expensive kit. Camera wobble can be solved with a bookshelf or cheap phone stand and a smartphone microphone is perfectly adequate if filming in a quiet location. The difference between a well-lit portrait photo or piece to camera and an anonymous silhouette can be as simple as taking a few steps to the right. If you want to use a film on stories you hold your phone as if you’re making a call but if it’s for YouTube you will want to rotate it. It’s all really easy but it’s also really easy to forget so provide your story gatherers with some virtual training or a top tips sheet reminding them what to do.

So, now we’ve talked you through the basics, why don’t you give it a go? Like all the new ways of working we’re all learning as we go at the moment and the best way to get going is to leap in and try it. Please tweet us your films as we’d love to see how you’re getting on.

Mile 91’s smartphone filmmaking course has moved online. It can be booked as an in-house group session or there are a series of public courses running throughout June and July.

Catherine Raynor

director, Mile 91

Catherine is a founding director of Mile 91 which specialises in story gathering and story management for charities and changemakers. Her first taste of storytelling was in 2006 when she established VSO’s story gathering function. She has managed more than 40 story gathering visits to developing countries and numerous shoots in the UK. She also provides consultancy to charities looking to audit their story gathering systems and processes or to develop internal skills in storytelling. She blogs on storytelling skills and best practice here.