For think tanks, video has become a key tool to achieve our central purpose

14 March 2019
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2018: Public Engagement 18 items

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]

When you want to learn something new, where do you turn? According to recent research put out by Google, for millennials the answer is increasingly video. In fact, millennials are 2.7 times more likely to watch a video on YouTube when seeking to learn new information or skills than a book or any other resource. And it’s not just bored college kids thumbing through their phones during class; 86% of millennial fathers say they turn to YouTube for child rearing advice. In the commercial space, brands are quickly learning this lesson and investing heavily in video marketing. As Facebook’s Irene Chen advised a group of marketers last year, ‘Video is not a nice-to-have, it is a must have.’

However, for some reason, think tanks often prefer to lag behind proven audience engagement trends in the commercial space. What begins with for-profit companies spills down to non-profits and advocacy organisations, eventually drifting down into the think tank and government toolkit.

But think tanks looking to engage the public in important policy research would do well to take a lesson from their business sector counterparts. According to a survey of 1,051 US adults done by Animoto (a leading online marketing firm), two thirds of millennials prefer to consume information via video than text. And research from Pew suggests that 20% of YouTube users see the site as ‘very important for helping them understand events that are happening in the world.’ In other words, video is a place where a rapidly growing segment of the population is turning for the type of information that think tanks provide.

So what does that mean? Do serious researchers need to adapt their scholarly findings into videos of cats on treadmills to engage a YouTube audience? Fortunately, the answer is no (though you’re welcome to do so if it scratches a particular itch). As online video becomes an increasingly dominant component of our media diets, we’re becoming more sophisticated consumers. Today, the most successful online videos are those that follow narratives about individuals.

This is great news for think tankers. As I’ve long argued, by telling character-based stories, think tanks can help their audience more concretely understand how policy problems (and solutions) directly impact human lives. Doing so makes real pressing policy research that, to the general public, can often feel abstract or distant. And, in a stubbornly polarised world in which citing facts and statistics can often drive people to dig deeper into an entrenched position, research shows that stories have the ability to actually change our beliefs. Stories also make it easier for us to remember complex information and ideas, and influence our future beliefs on related issues.

In other words, a well-told story can effectively accomplish three key goals that thinktankers seek to deliver through their research:

  • helping people understand and recall complex information and ideas;
  • shifting beliefs with new information;
  • influencing future views.

None of this is to say that the written report is dead. Among specific, policymaker audiences, written reports are often a more efficient way of providing important information – especially information that is heavy on statistics and technical details.

But even policymakers are drawn to online videos that shed light on relevant issues. A survey I did among US policymakers and staffers showed that 80% watched at least one online video about a policy issue every single day.

And as think tanks wisely look beyond the limited policymaker audience and seek to influence the public at large, it’s time for us to take a page from our counterparts in the private sector’s book. Video, they’ve proven, is no longer a luxurious gimmick for us to throw spare resources at as the fiscal year winds down. It is a key tool in achieving the goals of providing new information, influencing public debate, and shifting beliefs that are central to our core purpose.