How To Make Compelling Policy Video: A Production Guide for Think Tanks

12 August 2015
SERIES Think tanks and video 12 items

[Editor’s note: Michael Kleiman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the founder of MediaTank Productions – a full service production company that works with think tanks and advocacy organizations to create video content that engages policy makers and the general public on critical social issues. Michael received a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he conducted research on think tanks’ use of video. For more on videos from On Think Tanks visit: think tanks and videos. Do you have great videos to share? Get in touch.]

Over the past ten years there has been an explosion in the amount of think tanks around the world that see the production of online video content as a critical part of their communications strategies. But is video an effective medium for accomplishing the missions of these organizations, namely to influence policy decisions and educate the public on critical policy issues? In an attempt to start answering that question, I interviewed fourteen communications executives at think tanks across the US, a half dozen policy makers in the legislative and executive branches of the US national government as well as representatives of production companies and online publications.

The research reveals important shortcomings in the success of think tank videos at influencing policy decisions and shaping public debate.

For starters, of the six policy makers interviewed, only one found think tank videos to be a helpful resource. Though looking at an admittedly small sample size, one can’t help but wonder, “Why do policy makers hate videos?” 

Of course, the answer is they don’t. In fact, five out of the six policy makers interviewed said they watched at least one online video every single day, with several watching significantly more. What’s more, most of these videos – from sources like The New York Times and VICE – focus on policy issues. So the problem is not with the medium itself, but rather the specific videos that think tanks are creating. If done right, video can be an incredibly effective way for influencing the opinions of policy makers, their staffs and the general public.

What follows is a list of best practices that encompasses the entire production process, from pre-production to dissemination. It should be noted that there is no precise formula for success in video production – or any creative endeavor for that matter. Nor is it necessary for a video to follow all of these best practices in order to be successful. Instead, this list should be seen as a guide to help think tanks identify proven strategies and alter their general thought processes around video production.

Step 1: What are your goals? Who is your audience?  

Before putting institutional time and resources into a video, it’s important to identify the larger goal you are trying to achieve. Here I don’t mean how many eyeballs you hope to get on the video or the amount of shares you want it to receive on social media, but rather the ultimate end you are trying to achieve. If it’s policy change, are you hoping to move the needle on a specific proposal aimed at an issue that policy makers already see as urgent or do you first need to raise the level of importance given to the issue in the public consciousness? Perhaps policy change isn’t your goal at all and, like some think tanks I interviewed, you just want to train practitioners on new tools or strategies for your specific policy area. Whatever the goal, it’s critical that it is defined at the outset.

The goal one is trying to achieve will help delineate the specific audience(s) that a video should target. Again, it’s imperative that you’re clear on who you are trying to reach at the outset as the intended audience(s) has important implications for the message, content and style of the video being produced.

For example, policy makers and the public are not the same thing. They have wildly different levels of knowledge on issues and preferences for how they consume content. In fact, many of the policy makers interviewed said that two of the primary reasons they don’t find think tank videos useful are that they don’t go deep enough into issues and that the data provided via motion graphics could be consumed far more efficiently via written reports.

Know your audience and think about what would be most helpful to them. In some cases you may decide to make several versions of a video, each geared toward different audiences.

In addition to helping inform the production process, defining a specific audience will be very helpful during the outreach process as well as in evaluating the project’s success later on. In fact, in my research I found that the organizations that were able to most specifically define their audience were the most confident in the success of their videos even if the overall viewership was rather modest. Knowing exactly who they were speaking to with their work allowed them to solicit feedback from their audience and receive firsthand testimony about how successful the videos were in achieving their stated goals.

Step 2: Production

Once you’ve determined your goals and your audience, it’s time to start thinking about the video itself. In doing so, remember that you’re using moving images to convey your message; you’re not writing a report. Video as a medium has a tremendous amount of advantages over the written word. However, a quick perusal of the thousands of think tank videos online shows that these strengths are all too often ignored.

Here’s a list of strategies for getting the most of out of video’s comparative advantages and creating content that has the greatest chance of success.

Tell A Compelling Story

First and foremost, video is an incredibly effective medium for telling stories. A well-told story can put your audience in the shoes of those who are affected by the policy problem you are trying to solve or the solution you are trying to sell and allow them to understand its significance in a new light. And yet, stories with compelling characters are too often completely absent from policy videos.

The other great thing about stories is that policy makers are hungry for them. Policy makers are constantly in search of good stories and examples that illustrate an issue or a challenge that they can use in speeches or include in correspondence with constituents. By focusing on stories, think tanks can not only help shed light on an issue and give voice to various stakeholders, they can offer policy makers a resource that is very useful to them. 

Show, Don’t Tell

Given the immense amount of information that policy makers and the general public have access to, video presents a unique opportunity to allow viewers to see the effects of an issue playing out rather than just hearing about it from an expert. By showing the experience of stakeholders affected by a given problem, video can incorporate new voices that are all too often absent from the public debate.

As one policy maker I interviewed put it, “Take me to the field. Videos that capture what things on the ground look like can be the catalyst for effective action. It doesn’t have to be incendiary or exploitative, but it does have to move me.”

A great example of a video that effectively takes its audience to the field is “Living Under Drones,” a video released in conjunction with a report of the same name by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU Law School. The video and report focus on US drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas. Interviews with survivors of drone strikes and family members of the deceased allow viewers to hear (and see) first hand testimony from those most affected by the issue. The video is also a great example of how production can be combined with the research process itself.

The Importance of Emotion

I vividly remember a piece of unsolicited advice I was given when I first started out as a filmmaker: “Film is a terrible medium for conveying information, but it’s the best we have for conveying emotion.”

While I do think there are ways to effectively convey information through video, if you want that information to really register and, ultimately lead to action, it must be accompanied by a healthy dose of emotion. In addition to improving the quality of the content itself, high emotionality has important consequences for the distribution of a video as online sharing is driven foremost by emotion.

Fortunately, emotion should not be hard to come by in the policy arena. No matter what issue you’re working on, you’re doing so because you believe that people’s welfare, livelihoods, and very existence hangs in the balance. There’s a lot of emotion there – find a way to convey that onscreen.

And don’t underestimate the power of humor, an important emotion that is all too often ignored in think tank videos. A great example of the use of humor to make an otherwise dull subject engaging, comes far outside the think tank world in the form of a Public Service Announcement (PSA) produced by Metro Trains in Melbourne, Australia. The video, entitled “Dumb Ways To Die” features animated characters singing a humorous song about foolish, albeit fatal, accidents. The video ends with a call to Australians to exercise caution while near train tracks. This PSA has been viewed over 100 million times since its online release in November 2012.


Just as companies like Netflix, HBO and Showtime have discovered the power of binge-watching, consistently successful online videos offer viewers repeated opportunities for new content around the same theme or set of characters. “Mainstream news and Hollywood have learned that viewers are attached to a host, guest, or powerful storytelling conceits,” said one communications executive I interviewed, yet many think tanks have failed to consider “personality-based programming.” Such content not only helps garner traffic, but builds up the stature of individual researchers and, by proxy, the institutions that house them.

“Seriality” takes advantage of another resource that think tanks have in great supply: experts on a wide range of subjects. By choosing experts who have a good on camera presence and creating a weekly “show” on a priority issue, think tanks can leverage their greatest resource to build up an audience and shape the public debate.

Several organizations have been playing with this serial model with great success. American Enterprise Institute’s “The Factual Feminist” – a regular online series that features AEI Researcher, Christina Hoff Sommers – regularly receives tens of thousands of views and as many as 636,000 views (AEI’s most viewed video to date). The series is an important example of how consistently released video can take advantage of “star power” to build an audience.

Not only does serial content increase viewership, it can be a great option for think tanks that are limited in funds.

“If Wes Anderson Made A Video About ISIS, I’d Watch That”

This comment, made in jest by a policy maker who otherwise expressed little interest in think tank (or any online) videos, highlights the importance of giving videos a sense of authorship and personality. Unfortunately, many think tank videos (though certainly not all!) are completely void of personality. Similarly styled animations are propelled forward by similar sounding music.

Like a good film, a good video offers viewers a sense that there is an actual person – an author – behind it. This sense of authorship can be achieved through a combination of tone, style and message. As they think about creating a full library of content, think tanks should think about a consistent institutional personality that comes through no matter what the subject matter.

Step 4: Outreach and Distribution

In my research, the most common mistake that think tanks seem to make in the video production process, is thinking that they are finished once the final cut is locked. If anything, the battle is just halfway over. While it’s nearly impossible to make any given video “go viral,” by being strategic in the way they engage in outreach and distribution, think tanks can give each video the best chance of success.

Below are series of best practices related to how to most effectively get your finished video in front of the target audience you defined way back in pre-production.

Equal Resources to Production & Distribution

Very few of the think tanks surveyed put serious thought into strategies around outreach and distribution. Even fewer allocated specific budgets to be spent on outreach. According to one think tank executive, “The biggest mistake organizations make is spending 95% of energy on development and far too little on promotion.” He noted that organizations should work at least as hard on outreach as they do on production. In addition to energy, organizations should allocate specific resources, namely funds, thought, and time, into developing and executing outreach and distribution strategies.

Video production can be expensive and in a world of limited resources it can be daunting – if not outright prohibitive – to think about budgeting even more funds to the outreach process. But without a well thought out and effectively executed outreach and distribution strategy, all of the work and resources that went into producing the video are likely to be wasted. If strapped for funds, think tanks should think about finding creative production strategies like some of the examples above in order to make sure they have enough resources left over for a robust outreach campaign.

Build Partnerships

Many of the think tanks surveyed referred to the videos they create as “products.” A better way to think about videos is as a campaign. A campaign mentality means thinking of other organizations and individuals who share similar interests and may be willing to help share the video with their own email lists as well as social media networks.

More than simply creating one-off partnerships, like-minded organizations should consider working together in order to create content communities. By consistently sharing each other’s content, organizations can build a reputation for being steady content curators without bearing the full cost.

Facebook & Targeted Advertising

While many think tanks expressed a preference for Twitter, Facebook has proven to be a far superior platform for video sharing. By design, Twitter feeds represent content that is shared in the moment. For that reason, Twitter posts can disappear from a user’s feed within a few moments of its initial posting. However, Facebook’s algorithm favors performance over temporality. High-performing content will therefore linger in users’ news feeds. In addition, in late 2014, Facebook shifted its algorithm to favor video content over text and photos making it an even better platform on which to share video.

Keep in mind, however, that Facebook’s new innate video feature means that you’ll need to upload a video directly to Facebook rather than embed it from a YouTube channel. This has important consequences for the way your content will be viewed. It’s fair to assume that the first few seconds of your video will be seen without audio as a potential viewer scrolls through her newsfeed. This form of distribution means that the first couple of seconds will be critical in determining whether someone decides to watch your video or not. It’s important that these opening moments are highly visual (remember, assume no sound!) and grab a viewer’s attention.

Facebook also offers highly effective targeted advertising capabilities that allow think tanks to market their videos directly to the audience they are trying to reach. With a small advertising budget, think tanks can target audiences based on location (for issues with local relevance), profession (i.e. anyone who works in Congress), or a wide range of other categories that can help them pin down a specific audience.

A Culture of Experimentation

One of the most game changing ideas in the realm of content dissemination in recent years is a simple one: our instincts and assumptions about what entices people to watch a piece of content are often wrong. Online publications like Upworthy have created entire business models that center on using analytics and experimentation – A/B testing as it is called – to test assumptions and determine what is most effective at getting viewers to watch content, and watch all of it.

By running pilot launches before officially launching videos, think tanks can target a small section of their audience and A/B test various titles and thumbnail images to see which are most effective. Using YouTube analytics, they can determine how long viewers are watching videos and when they are dropping off.

It’s surprising how few think tanks take advantage of such a wealth of data, given the premium that is placed on data in the research they are working to promote! Titles that perform poorly should be altered; videos with early drop off points should be edited in order to increase retention rates. Think of the video as a living document that can change as you receive feedback from your audience.

As a filmmaker with a deep passion for public policy, I believe very strongly in the ability that video has to shape the way people think about urgent policy issues and grapple with the competing ideas as to how to solve those problems. By better understanding how to take advantage of such a powerful medium, think tanks can leverage the knowledge and analytical power that is their specialty and create palpable progress in tackling some of the most critical issues of our time.