Sunday, December 10, 2017

When Choosing Stories to Read About International Relief and Development, People Look for the Helpers

Canadian Foodgrains Bank supporters at a harvest.

For a long time, relief and development organizations (and other non-profits) have known the best way to engage people is to tell stories.

We've known that articles about programs and numbers and official statements don't seem to elicit the same responses. 

But it was all gut reaction. We didn't have the data. Which stories received more attention? And why?

Until the web came along, it was mostly guesswork. 

There was no easy way to know what stories were read, and which ones were ignored.

But now the clicks tell the tale. We can know exactly which stories connect with people, and which ones don’t.

(And if we have sophisticated analytics, we can even tell for how long.)

And what are those stories that connect? 

That’s what Emily Loewen, digital content coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee Canada, wanted to find out.

She looked at 215 stories produced by the organization. Of that total, only 19 accounted for 50% of the traffic for stories on their website.

And what made those stories stand out?  

Ten of the stories were about what MCC supporters were doing to help people in need around the world.

Six were about humanitarian disasters around the world, and how MCC was responding to help.

Three were official statements from the agency about positions it was taking on events in the news, or just saying “thanks” to donors.

From her analysis, Loewen concluded that the top stories had the following similarities.

First, they had high news value. They were relevant to things happening in the world at that time.

Second, they were about humanitarian disasters, and what people could do.

Third, they focused on people who were responding to those disasters and other needs around the world—inspirational stories about donors and what they were doing to help.

Fourth, they promoted a sense of hope: Something could be done.

Fifth, they didn’t mention MCC too much. They were about what people were doing to help through MCC, not just about what the organization was doing.

Sixth, they weren't very much about partners on the ground—and they weren't about development programs.

For Loewen and her colleagues at MCC, this information was a “painful realization.”

Despite sending writers overseas four times a year to write about the agency's important development work, “not a single one of those stories made the top of the list,” she says.

“It makes us ask ourselves that if that’s what are people are reading, why are we spending so much time and money on those stories?”

The analysis has prompted prompted MCC to rethink how they choose which stories to tell.

Questions they are asking include: Should we write fewer stories? Or just fewer stories about development?   

For Loewen, the analysis shows “we need to tell more personal stories about our supporters and what they do to help others.”

MCC’s findings mirror what we see at my agency, Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Our major source of funds are our growing projects, where farmers come together to grow and harvest a crop, donating the proceeds to the Foodgrains Bank.

When we post photos and stories about these projects on Facebook and Twitter, we get lots of engagement—lots of likes, shares and re-tweets.

When we post something about our work in the developing world, we get much less engagement.

And why is that?

It’s no mystery. People like reading about people who are like them. 

It’s much easier to identify with someone like ourselves who is doing something to help others, than with a poor person in the developing world.

When a friend involved in overseas programming heard about this analysis, she was saddened.

She asked: "What’s wrong with Canadians? Don’t they care about people in the developing world?"

Yes, they do care. It’s just that they find it hard to put themselves in their shoes. 

But a story about someone in Canada who is doing something to help others is different. We can be like that person!

It gives us hope.

Of course, this is something the media has known for a long time. It's called the local angle.

As Brodie Fenlon, director of news for the CBC said about what prompts people to pay attention to a story: “Is it relevant to me? Is it close to me—geographically, or do I know someone involved in the story, or is it in my country or province?”

“The further away the story is, the less interested people are.”

To be clear, this doesn't mean we shouldn't tell stories about partners overseas. We should.

As Fenlon noted, there are things people should know, and that the media should report them.

That's why the CBC sent a reporter to South Sudan earlier this year to report about the famine in that country, even though they knew interest in the story was low.

For NGOs, that's also important. We need to tell stories about development, and about partners and beneficiaries.

But, as Loewen observed, it could be the best way to tell those stories is through the eyes of Canadians.

“It’s a way of connecting the dots between the people helping and the impact that’s making," she says. 

"You can use the stories of donors to also share about the development work overseas.”

Thinking about Loewen's findings, I'm reminded of what Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood fame, used to say.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers," he said. "You will always find people who are helping.”
It appears that it's not only children who feel that way. Adults like to look for the helpers, too.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

It's All Digital Now, and Other Thoughts from Brodie Fenlon, CBC Director of Daily News

In 2016 I wrote a post about Brodie Fenlon, then Senior Director for Digital News at CBC. In it, he shared his thoughts about the digital revolution. In November I arranged for Fenlon—now Senior Director Daily News and Bureaus at CBC—to speak to a group of communicators from church-related agencies. This time it was about how CBC is adapting to this digital world. Below find excerpts from that presentation—a bit long, I know, but maybe there’s something here that addresses questions you are asking.

It’s All Digital Now

Fenlon noted that when electricity was developed, people talked about electric stoves, electric fridges, electric lights, etc. to distinguish them from the old technologies of wood stoves, ice boxes and gas lights.

But when everything became electric, people stopped doing that.

“That is where we are at with digital today,” he said. “Now it’s just a stove, a fridge, a light.”

It's all just digital now, in other words.

It's the same with stories at the CBC. They used to talk about digital stories versus print, radio or TV stories, he said.

“But then we decided it wasn’t a matter of digital versus broadcast, but just about storytelling. We want to start with the story, the story is first, then we move to platforms.”

The CBC, he added, has “stopped thinking of digital as a separate activity . . . we used to think of the platform first. But that model no longer works. We start with story, then think of best way to tell it across platforms.”

Today, he said, “it’s just a stove, it’s just a story. That’s how audience thinks of it, and how we should think of it, too.” 

Presentation Matters

When developing a story, reporters spend a lot of time on the content—as they should. Less time is spent on how the story looks on a screen.

Fenlon noted that presentation plays a huge role in whether someone clicks on a story or not. 

And what are the three most important things in helping people make that decision to click or not? Headline, image and summary.

“We spend a lot of time on stories, but little on the presentation,” he said. “Each headline, image, and blurb matters.”

It’s All About Mobile

As has been noted earlier on this blog, the future for non-profit communication is mobile.

It's the same for the media.

“The growth for the CBC is mobile,” he said. “73% of visits to our news site our mobile.”

For website designers, who build pages on desktops, this means remembering how most people see them—on phones.

Something may look great on a desktop, Fenlon said, but it should be checked on a phone to see what it looks like on that platform before going live.

This also affects video; most people use their phones vertically, so the CBC is making more vertical video.

“It’s a big ask to get people to turn their phones,” he said.

Reaching Millennials

The big challenge for non-profits is how to engage millennials. It also preoccupies the CBC.

Reflecting on millennials, Fenlon noted they are people in their jobs, newly-married or living with partner, having their first child, buying their first house.

Because of this, they are becoming more interested in news—about the economy, schools, childcare, housing, interest rates, etc.

This audience is on the phone, he said; outreach to them needs to be “phone first.”

As for what they want from a news outlet, "they also want to have some fun,” he said, noting that “the news is often bad.”

Millennials want two things from news, he stated.

“They want to know what’s going on, but they also like to feel uplifted, to laugh," he said.

This is why late night shows are so popular with this age group, he added, with their mix of news and humour.

Additionally, “they want to know what to do when there is bad news. They want constructive journalism, solutions journalism, they want to hear about people who are fixing problems, and know how they can be part of the solution.”

Back to the Future with Newsletters

Back in the early days of digital, organizations sent newsletters by e-mail—lots of them. The early ones were often just print newsletters in PDF form. They were hard to download and read.

Groups then moved to table-of-contents-style newsletters—a single (though sometimes long) page of links pushing people to websites.

When services like MailChimp came along, groups had better ways of not only sending newsletters, but also of counting click-through rates—how many people actually opened them and clicked-through to websites.

More recently, enthusiasm for newsletters has waned as people get bombarded with e-mails. 

Plus, most people are on social media; why not use that channel? Should we drop newsletters altogether?

Fenlon says no. The CBC, he says, thinks they are a great way to connect with audiences. 

Why? “The good thing about newsletters is that we own and operate them,” he said. 

Unlike with Facebook, which owns that medium and uses it to suit its own needs and goals, newsletters “are ours alone, not dependent on others to share information.”

Although Facebook is the main driver of visits to the CBC website, it controls how people find it and what they hear from it. It makes the rules.

“We are beholden to their interests, and their interests are not our interests,” he said.

Newsletters, on the other hand, are completely controlled by the organization that creates them.

He doesn’t worry if the CBC’s newsletters don't drive traffic to the website.

“We provide a short summary and a link to full story, but it’s not critical that people go to website. It is not a way to drive them somewhere else. The newsletter is the destination.”

Audiences, he said, “hate it when you try to push them somewhere else. If this is their only news source, that’s fine.”

What makes a newsletter successful?

“It has to be useful,” he said. “That’s why people sign up for them, open them.”

For groups that make newsletters, it means being “clear about their purpose, and who they are for,” if they are to succeed.

Which Social Media is the Best?

Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram—so many options. Which ones to use?

This is a big question for non-profits, which are often cash-strapped and constrained when it comes to staff time and resources.

As it turns out, the CBC also wrestles with this question.

How to decide which social media platforms to focus on? Fenlon asks three things:

Does it have reach in Canada?

Does it have good growth prospects? (e.g. Twitter is declining, but snapchat is growing.)

Does it convert the audience back to our website?

At the end of the day, though, “none of the platforms matter if you don’t have a good story to tell.”

How CBC Decides Which Stories to Tell

Non-profits that want media attention often wonder: How does an outlet like the CBC decide which stories to tell?

For Fenlon, it’s a “combination of story and logistics. It is partly driven by what is current, but also by whether we have the people and resources to cover it.”

On the story side, it’s a question of the angle, whether its current, if the audience is interested or if they should know about it.

On the logistics side, the questions are more prosaic: Is a camera and reporter available? Is there time to run it? How much will it cost?

For international stories, this is complicated by the need to travel, get visas, file a security plan, and have a reporter and camera out of the studio for a week or more.

Added to this is the fast-pace of the news cycle today.

“This is a news cycle unlike anything ever experienced due to Trump,” he said.

“It’s a new paradigm—everything is news, and it keeps changing. Much of that is driven by Washington . . . The normal rules of the media and news don’t apply.”

“Add a disaster to that, and it’s hard to know how to keep up,” he said.

What do Audiences Want?

That’s a question facing the CBC, and non-profits, too.

“There are always two competing interests for audiences,” Fenlon said. “Is it relevant to me, is it close to me—geographically, do I know someone involved in the story, is it in my country or province?”

“The further away the story is, the less interested people are.”

At the same time, there are things people should know, he said.

“We try to keep that in front of them,” he said, citing how they sent a reporter to South Sudan to report on the famine in that country.

“There wasn’t a huge audience or appetite, but it reached a small number of people who could make a difference,” he said.

How to Attract Media Attention?

“I get hundreds of messages every day,” he said, noting that press releases with his name copied into them don’t work.

“I don’t look at them. I don’t have time,” he said.

The best route “is to build connections with actual reporters,” he said. “But it still needs to be a good story. News always based on a hook. It drives everything. The pitch needs to be newsworthy. We want something new and original, and that is tied into news cycle.”

How to Measure Engagement?

At one time the main measurement was reach, he said—how many people clicked on a story.

Today the key is “how long stay on page, how much they read, watch and spend time.”

CBC uses Chartbeat to measure this form of engagement.

“Reach still matters, but think we will achieve more by getting more engagement,” he said.

Competition for Attention

“The competition for attention is huge,” he said, adding that the CBC is not just “competing against other Canadian media, but against media in other countries, with anyone who publishes in the English language. Everyone is our competitor.”


Thinking about Fenlon’s presentation, one thought occurs to me: It’s comforting to know that even a media outlet as big as the CBC is challenged by the changing communication’s environment, and in keeping up with the news—it’s not just little non-profits feeling this way.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Decline and Possible Death of the Canadian Newspaper

In November Postmedia and Torstar swapped over 40 small newspapers and shut down most of them. This week is also the last for the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, which is 128 years-old. Meantime, the Globe and Mail reduced the size of its print edition to save costs.

In all cases, the reason for the closures is falling revenues, from circulation and advertising. Their demise is a sad backdrop for my friend Ken Goldstein's latest analysis of the future of print newspapers in Canada. 

Requiem for the print edition. That’s what Ken Goldstein of Communic@tions Management Inc. calls his most recent report on the future of newspapers in Canada.

In the report Goldstein, a leading authority on media economics and trends, notes that for much of the 20th century the printed daily newspaper was a tangible expression of “continuity and familiarity.”

Today that “tangible form” is under serious threat from technology—the digital world.

As a result, he writes, “most of our general interest daily newspapers [have been put] into a downward spiral towards an unsustainable future.”

It wasn’t always this way, of course.

Historical data collected by Goldstein shows that daily newspaper circulation grew slowly in Canada immediately after Confederation, when 16.7% of households received a newspaper.

Paid circulation as % of Canadian households, 1867-2017

A period of more rapid growth began after 1880, in tandem with increased urbanization, the spread of railways and the telegraph, and the changes in technology and scale in the production of the newspapers themselves.

As a percentage of households, the peak occurred around World War I, with another slightly lower peak after World War II.

The early 1950s was the start of a period of about 40 years in which circulations grew, but not as fast as households.

Since the 1990s, actual circulation, and the relationship to households, have both declined.

“So we find ourselves in a very interesting place,” he writes. “Daily newspaper paid circulation in 2017 is equivalent to 14.8 per cent of households, which is lower than the percentage was in 1867.”

Paid circulation trend line to 2025

If this trend continues, he says, the percentage of households paying for a daily newspaper could fall to 10% by 2020, and to 5% by 2025.

In his 2015 discussion paper, which I wrote about on this blog, he noted that he “did not believe that a viable print business model exists for most general interest daily newspapers once paid circulation drops below 10% of Canadian households.”

At that time, he wrote, “Canada’s daily newspapers now are engaged in a 10-year race against time and technology to develop an online business model that will enable them to preserve their brands without print editions.”

Even more difficult, he says, is for them “to try to enable their online presence to maintain their current journalistic scope.”

Since then, the downward trend has accelerated, he says.

“The race against time and technology is no longer 10 years; it is closer to five.”

That urgency has become more evident in 2017, as more newspapers have closed.

Industry groups and others have put forward a number of suggestions, often involving government assistance, to deal with the problem.

Loss of Advertising & Death of the Classifieds

It's not just dropping circulation that is killing daily newspapers; so is the drastic decline in advertising.

Nothing illustrates this better than the death of the classifieds.

From a peak of $875 million in 2005, by 2016 newspapers only received $105 million from classifieds, Goldstein notes.

“The collapse of classified advertising in daily newspapers is a classic example of the ‘unbundling’ effect of technology,” he writes.

Through this unbundling, competitors like Craigslist and eBay were able to steal this lucrative part of the newspaper business.

Loss of this revenue is devastating for newspapers; as often has been said, circulation pays for the paper and the ink, but advertising pays for the journalism.

Back in 1964 media guru Marshall McLuhan recognized this: “The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.”

Sadly, his prediction seems to be coming true.

Near the end of the report, Goldstein wonders: Is it possible for newspapers to make the print-to-digital transition?

“Given the trends in circulation and advertising revenues, it seems unlikely that most general interest daily newspapers will be able to make the print-to-digital transition,” he writes.

There may be a small number of unique cases, he says, involving national or special interest daily newspapers.

“But for the classic mid-size local general interest daily newspaper, the prospects are not good.”

What’s the Solution?

So: What’s the solution?

For Goldstein, it means planning now for the paperless newspaper world.

“Both public and private policymakers should be spending the next few months modelling possible futures,” he says.

Things they need to discuss include the best ways to serve the public and public policy goals, best ways to intervene to help newspapers survive, and what to do if they completely fail—how will Canadians be informed?

Goldstein concludes by noting that the trends he has observed “are more than just some interesting history about newspaper circulation in Canada. They tell us where daily newspapers have been, but they also may be telling us where daily newspapers are going.

“Planning for the transition before we get there is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.”

What does this mean for non-profits? 

I'll do a longer post later, but for now let me put it this way: Three of the papers shut down by the Postmedia-Torstar swap (noted above) carried a lot of information about my organization. 

Their loss will make it more difficult for us to communicate with our supporters in those communities, and then to raise funds.

It may not be a requiem only for newspapers, in other words.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Canadians and Foreign Aid: What Do They Think?

What do Canadians think about foreign aid?

They think it’s a good idea, but they don’t think Canada should spend more on it.

That is one of the findings from surveys done this year about Canadian attitudes towards foreign aid.

The three surveys were conducted this by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, an umbrellas group for Canadian NGOs; the One Campaign, and CanWach (Canadian Partnership for Women’s and Children’s Health).

When asked to rank a series of issues facing Canadians, and then asked which ones Canada should spend more on, aid was ranked at the bottom.

In the top four were healthcare, terrorism, unemployment in Canada and poverty in Canada.

Global hunger was near the bottom at #10 and poverty in the developing world was #13.

As one researcher put it: “No good news here with regard to development aid.”

For marketers and communicators, an important finding was that 64% of Canadians could not name a single relief and development organization.

We simply can't assume that most people know who we are, or that we exist, in other words.

Here are some other findings from the three surveys.

A majority of Canadians think foreign aid is a good idea, but support for it is soft. When asked, few agree Canada should spend more.

Most Canadians have no idea how much Canada spends on foreign aid.

One survey noted that the term “foreign aid” is not positive for most Canadians. It led one researcher to suggest that NGOs not use that term when making a case to the public for more spending on relief and development.

How many Canadians are supportive of foreign aid? According to one of the surveys, 23% of Canadians are active supporters, 20% are passive, 20% are swing, 15% are disengaged, 14% are passive opponents, and 9% are actively opposed.

What about those who oppose it—who are they? They tend to be conservative politically, high school educated, blue collar, male, older and rural. Unless they are religious, in which case they are supportive of helping others through aid. (This is something religious NGOs know, but it came as a surprise to one researcher.)

When those who support aid were asked why, the most common response in the surveys was a sense of moral duty and compassion.

When asked who they trust in the NGO sector, respondents indicated they trust the reports of individual relief and development workers above institutions.

When it comes to engagement in this issue, or most other issues and causes, participation is decreasing in the areas of volunteering, donating or participating in fundraisers. Where engagement is rising it is through social media.

When it comes to getting news, 61% of Canadians rely on Facebook. 19% list Twitter, 18% use YouTube.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Home Depot, Terrorist Attacks, Logos and Food Aid

It’s a great photo—a Rohingya woman holding a Canadian Foodgrains Bank bag of food.

What’s not to like? Our logo is prominently displayed.

It’s great marketing and public relations.

There’s nothing not to like about it, unless something goes wrong.

And as surely as Murphy of Murphy’s Law lives, something often goes wrong.

One of the most common occurrences for food aid organizations is when food goes astray and ends up in a market for sale.

When that happens, there are many reasonable explanations.

The food might have been stolen—something not unusual in places where people are desperate, the rule of law is lax, there is conflict, or there are too many guns.

Just about every place we send food aid, in other words.

Or a recipient family sold the food—again, not unusual in places where people have many needs, including for food.

Maybe they needed money for medicine to save a child’s life. Who wouldn’t sell food to do that?

It could also have been traded for a cooking pot to a local seller in the market, or for any other much-needed item.

Or the bag might simply have been used and thrown away, only to be used by a seller as a handy item for their shop.

All reasonable answers, but meaningless if a story comes out about our food aid being found to sale in the market. 

When that happens, agencies like the Foodgrains Bank are in a losing race to try to contain the damage.

Before you know it, it's gone viral on social media, causing damage and headaches for communicators and public relations practitioners.

And damaging it can be; when your reputation is staked on making sure donations get to those who need it most, the "loss" of food can set you back in the public's mind.

If we've done our job—if we've been proactive about talking about how challenging it is to do food aid—long-time and regular donors will know this, and not be worried.

But during emergencies, like the terrible situation facing the Rohingya, many donors are first-time givers.

They don't know what it's like to try to deliver food in places where almost everything has broken down, conflict is raging, or people barter food to meet other important needs.

All they know is that food from the Foodgrains Bank was found for sale; suddenly, we look like poor managers, wasting the donations of Canadians.

Thoughts about the opportunities and challenges of food aid came to mind following yesterday’s terrible attack in New York City.

The attacker used a rented Home Depot truck to mow down innocent bicyclists and walkers.

Photos from the aftermath of the attack clearly show the truck with Home Depot’s logo.

Home Depot did nothing wrong, as far as we know, in renting the truck to a legitimate user.

But still, there they are, associated with the attack, their name being used in most every news article about it. 

This is not the kind of publicity they were looking for, that;s for sure.

It will be interesting to see how they respond—how will they deal with this image issue?

An industry that has been proactive in dealing with these kind of public relations challenges is in the world of railways.

Companies that transport oil and other dangerous chemicals in tank cars never make the news unless a train derails. Then they are all over the news.

The oil and chemical companies have dealt with this by painting their tank cars a non-descript black without any company logos or names.

All they have is the required reporting marks, along with other information about the car and its contents.

When an accident happens, we see the cars laying askew off the tracks, but there are no company names.

Of course, the companies will be noted in news coverage, but not in images that can quickly span the Internet.

By keeping their names and logos off the cars, they proactively limit the public relations challenges.

Contrast this with the 1930s-50s, when companies emblazoned their names and logos on the side of tank cars. It was part of their marketing strategy.

But not today, not when everyone has a camera and people are so sensitive to environmental and other damage.

When it comes to marketing through products and services, whether that's on trucks, tanker cars or food aid, it can cut both ways—good and bad.

Those of us who work in communications need to be aware of both.