Nonprofit Startup Taps The Crowd To Tell Its Story

February 10, 2011

EarthEditor’s note:There’s an interesting new media project under way at the University of Minnesota. It’s Dialogue Earth, a nonprofit venture that aims to create and distribute trustworthy and easy-to-understand information about global environmental problems.

Dialogue Earth stands out for what it isn’t. It’s not an advocacy group. It’s not a think tank. It’s not a traditional public awareness campaign. Instead, the new organization is first and foremost a publisher. It’s purpose is closer to MinnPost than Greenpeace.

Dialogue Earth is tapping the crowd to conceive and produce informational videos. They’re using the crowd-sourcing platform Tongal, which is cool because contributors get paid for good ideas and quality work.

This guest post is from Tom Masterman, associate director at Dialogue Earth. [Disclosure: Masterman once worked with Fast Horse Senior Director Bob Ingrassia at Internet Broadcasting in St. Paul.]

Nonprofit Startup Taps The Crowd To Tell Its Story

By Tom Masterman

Tom MastermanI sometimes have to remind myself that marketing is a means to an end, and that the messaging and creative that resonate with me may have little impact on the audience I’m endeavoring to reach.

My latest reminder has come in launching a brand from scratch. Never before have I had so much potential marketing control than today, as I help raise awareness for Dialogue Earth, a nonprofit media company focused on environmental dialogue.

Without a doubt, I’ve never cared more about a mission, which for us is increasing public understanding on topics of environmental importance. I’ve never more scrutinized a brand name, logo and boiler plate. And, I’ve never been more concerned that my target audience hears, listens and acts on a message.

And that is why I’m letting the crowd help us out.

There were two main considerations in deciding to crowd-source the creation of a “Why Dialogue Earth?” video to explain our organization, a project which we launched about a week ago.

First, we discussed if a video was worth the time and expense. After all, we had already crafted what we deemed to be some clear and compelling statements around our mission, vision and work. Plus, a video project would cost thousands and take weeks.

Then, we thought about whether the crowd could convey our key points, and our core values, as well as we could. We weighed the certainty of losing some control against a potential gain in effectiveness.

As a point of reference, we had one pilot test under our belt. This past November, we worked with Tongal, a community of hundreds of creative types, to crowd-source short videos on the topic of ocean acidification – an issue few Americans even know about. The result was a set of creative videos, each diverse in style but all adherent to the key science points we laid out in the contest rules.

Here’s the winning video:

Adding to my consideration were my personal scars with corporate videos. While uncertain what the crowd might create, one outcome we would avoid was the classic, in-house-produced “About Us” video– loved by your executives, but panned as generic and inauthentic by not only your consumers, but your own employees.

As we thought about our marketing goal– to introduce ourselves to potential supporters, engage them and compel them to ask, “How can I help?”– we determined it was critical to be accessible, sincere and original. Deliberations complete, it was with far more excitement than fear that we decided to kick off our crowd-sourcing project.

Over the next few weeks, creative storytellers will compete to tell the Dialogue Earth story. We’ve provided them a short video explaining our objectives, and key points about our organization. Outside of an online discussion interface, creators will produce videos with minimal input and oversight.

We haven’t figured out the optimal balance of feedback and freedom when managing the process, but we’ve learned that giving up a little control can result in a lot of creativity. And while we’ll continue to make use of all the marketing resources available to us, we’re confident that, for our nonprofit media company looking to engage a broad audience, one way to communicate to the crowd is through voices from the crowd.