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When should we call a charity film “successful”?

4 April 2018

There’s no denying film is a powerful communication tool. What’s more, it’s becoming essential, having made up 73% of global internet traffic in 2016.

Third sector communicators are well positioned to use film for good. With it, we can bring issues of inequality to the public eye, platform stories of strength and resilience and underline the need for change. The opportunities are endless, but how do we know we are hitting the mark? 

Measuring success

I asked a range of charities how they measure the success of their videos, and often the responses were straightforward: views, engagement and fulfilment of campaign asks. It makes sense. We need to know the reach of the content we are putting out. But when trying to understand the impact and effectiveness of our communications, these metrics only tell part of the story.

In everyday life, our interactions are being reduced to figures. Facebook counts the people who reached out on the platform to wish you happy birthday. Instagram tells you how many people double-tapped their screen to show their approval of what you had for lunch. Happn gives a daily notification of how many people in your immediate vicinity think you are attractive. Our brains are being trained to seek out validation through figures, and genuine, substantial interactions are at risk of taking a back seat. It’s obvious that we can’t judge our personal value by these numbers, so should we be measuring the value of our content in this way? What we don’t see in engagement metrics is what our viewers are taking away from our content, or how the content affects the lives of the people we’re portraying.

Risks in pushing for views

If we are only led by analytics, we may end up missing the wider impact of our work, which can be detrimental for participants and the organisation as a whole. An example of this is Comic Relief’s film, Ed Sheeran meets a little boy who lives on the streets. Here, the singer goes to Liberia to meet a young boy named JD, who was orphaned through the Ebola crisis. The film uses tried and tested methods to gain traction – the use of a celebrity ambassador and pity-evoking imagery and narratives of marginalized communities – often referred to as ‘poverty porn’.

The video caused a spike in donations for Comic Relief and has since been viewed on YouTube over 7.8m times. If looking at the numbers, it would seem the film was successful. However, the film was criticised for its reductive nature, which platformed Ed Sheeran as a hero, while JD remained a passive figure. This led it to be awarded the title of ‘most offensive’ charity campaign at the ‘Radi-Aid’ awards, a satirical campaign shining a spotlight on charity videos that continue to perpetuate stereotypes and leave viewers with a damaging worldview. Recognising the problems, Comic Relief have apologised for the video and taken bold and important strides to improve the nature of their future communications.

What did audiences take away from the content?

I ran an analysis of the YouTube comments, looking at how often individual words were mentioned, to better understand what the audience may have taken from the video. It’s just one way of thinking about what’s been prioritised in your content.

The most recurrent words in the comments were “I”, appearing in 5.2% of the dialogue, and “Ed” which appeared in 2.8%. Looking at the detail of the comments, ‘I’ was mostly used in the context of how the video made viewers feel (sad, generally), and ‘Ed’ was used to congratulate Sheeran, the celebrity ambassador. So the video was effective in it’s aims, it seems. The use of an emotive narrative affected the audience, and the celebrity ambassador promoted engagement, which furthered reach and raised funds.

The problems can be found in what was less prominent from the comments, and what wasn’t there at all. The name of the young boy who featured alongside Sheeran, appears in 0.2% of the dialogue. The words “Liberia” and “Ebola” do not appear at all. So, although people have engaged with the content enough to discuss it on the platform, few have been moved to talk about the experience of JD, the context of his issues or even the country where he lives. In a broad sense, this leaves people with a restricted and often skewed understanding of the world.

If we base communications on whatever gets us the most views and engagements, paying less attention to the quality of the interaction, we run the risk of spending a lot of time, energy and resource on video content that misses the mark with our audience or, at worst, portrays participants in a way that could be damaging.

Another side to success

There are a range of charities who consider different indicators of success, recognising that film can be part of the great work charities do, rather than only a means to let people know that the work is happening.

A great example of this is the Participatory Video project Not Just Homeless from Aspire Oxford, Oxford Homeless Pathways and InsightShare. In this project, the partners worked with previously homeless people to “explore the diversity of causes of homelessness, the complexity of people’s struggles and how to break down harmful stereotyping”. The film platformed the voices of those who had direct experience of homelessness and narrative control was in the hands of the participants. Alongside raising money, the team noted benefits such as:

  • raising the self-esteem of the participants
  • providing participants with transferrable skills
  • integration of the film into the Thames Valley police training
  • reaching a large and diverse audience through multiple screenings
  • being included as part of local school curriculum

Here, the film was considered a success through the added value it could provide. If we considered success only by YouTube views, we might have missed the other benefits of the project, making it harder to make the case for similar work in the future. The two examples, of course, were working to very different objectives, and participatory processes may not be appropriate or achievable in certain situations. Still, we don’t have to choose between two extremes. In broadening what we aim to achieve from our video content, we can open ourselves up to a broader set of benefits for our audiences, organisations and the people who feature in our films.

Films live on once our campaign goals have been met, as do the people who lend us their voice. If we are going to continue to develop and improve our video communications, to ensure we are doing the best by the people we aim to connect with and serve, we need to look beyond the hits.

Image : Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

Read more:

Films to inspire change


Molly Clarke

former digital content officer, CharityComms

Molly was formerly the digital content officer at CharityComms and a Charity Works fellow. Before CharityComms, she was studying for her MA in International Development. Prior to that, she directed, produced and edited film projects both in a corporate and not-for-profit setting in the UK and internationally.