Secrets of digital content for policy engagement

24 November 2020
SERIES OTT Conference 2020: the 3rd online event 14 items

[The summary of this session was written by Marília Ferreira da Cunha, Digital Communications Officer at On Think Tanks.]

Think tanks have long wrestled with the puzzle of how to use timely and compelling digital content to build their brands and drive engagement. Only a few seem to have cracked the code. In this session, hosted by John Schwartz of Soapbox, Jennifer Trent Staves divulges how the Wellcome Trust’s editorial strategy transformed the organisation’s digital presence; Paul Franz reveals how CSIS’s iDeas Lab works alongside researchers to create compelling online experiences; and Clair Grant-Salmon spills the beans on how IIED uses social media, newsletters and multiple digital channels to drive engagement and build policy impact.

Speakers: Jennifer Trent Staves (now DfE Digital / formerly at Wellcome Collection), Paul Franz (CSIS iDeas Lab), Clair Grant-Salmon (IIED)
Host: John Schwartz (Soapbox)

Key takeaways

This session focused on how not to produce content in the same old way but rather investing in producing content regularly, in a relevant way and addressing areas that are your expertise and telling stories. 

Jennifer Staves started by disclosing the mysteries of how to approach content through storytelling. The important aspect is to understand digital channels as people’s experiences of the organisation, not only a tool.

Jennifer gave the example of the Wellcome Collection in which the whole editorial process was changed moving away from a blog towards a magazine storytelling approach. This approach led to more content on a regular basis: more people read the content, more people read for longer, fewer people left without interacting, and other organisations advertised the stories driving traffic to the website. The key was building a regular cadence and making sure it fit. 

The best is to test ideas, and decide what success looks like, and how to start building a relationship. 

Important things to remember: 

  • Operationalisation is key.
  • Be consistent and start small. 
  • Think programmatically. 
  • Publish regularly. 
  • Create guidelines that help you make good content. 
  • Be transparent, and track performance. 

Download Jennifer’s slides.

Paul Franz imparted a formula for engaging with research and creating content around mapping. He highlighted that the attention deficit has been talked about for a long time as the main challenge for communications, but it is actually more about attention getting. Think tanks usually focus on a repository of all research that was done without thinking about the most effective ways of reaching audiences. 

Paul gave the example of CSIS that addressed that issue focusing on expanding the use of satellite images together with mapping to illustrate pressing issues. The objective was to create stories, not repositories of information. Having endless streams of data and information, and using it to create stories and narratives through academic reports, but also using videos aimed at making the data more publicly accessible. 

What has been the output? Influencing and engaging in political conversations. 

Download Paul’s slides. 

Clair Grant-Salmon talked about how to put digital content to the right audiences focusing on marketing, digital, and data. 

Clair recommends that when talking about building digital profiles for effective engagement, the focus should be on a unique combination of audiences, objectives, and the content you are generating which creates a unique digital identity.

This should be process driven:

  • Put audiences at the heart of what we do – building relationships to understand them and the nuances
  • Choose the right channels and messages to get out there
  • Use data to see what is working and what is is not working and improve the process

It is important to do an audience profiling, adding personality to their audience. Where did they find information? How are they seeking information when they want to make decisions? What decisions do they make? How much time do they have to consume information? Hit audiences in different ways with the same message to reinforce identity and brand. Evaluate the options with data using scenario mapping and journey mapping to understand the needs and intentions of the users.

There is no need to throw everything to the same channel. It is important to focus on what organisations are trying to achieve and find the right space for that. 

Download Clair’s slides. 

From the chatbox


The story behind stories and our journalistic approach

A practical guide for making a journalistic approach to digital content

Frozen line Himalayas

Dataset on chemical weapons use in Syria

Questions and comments:

In John’s intro he alluded to a modern looking website with old school content. To my mind this doesn’t just require a refresh of the communications/engagement teams. It requires: leadership commitment, changes in the way the research team works (what issues they look into, the methods they use, the outputs they produce -e.g. what Cast from Clay talked about in the last session, the skills required from the researchers), funding/fundraising, etc.  

Mapping really works for the CSIS brand. Are there particular types of content that work really well for the brands of think tanks represented in the audience?

I think often researchers/think tanks make assumptions about their audiences based on past experience or on a few visible representatives of their audiences. Do you compare what your researchers say with what the real audiences say about themselves?

Any suggestions to keeping appetite alive for promoting work on ‘traditional’ channels such as websites? We notice now more and more people are keen to resort to social media promotion only for the ease of getting the message out there quickly to the detriment of a website which often is the main entry channel to the organisation’s work.

(On academic researchers) I’d say that’s where getting in at the proposal stage comes in too, not just making sure there’s budget but getting in those important questions about what it is you’re trying to do, why it’s important and who you need to reach.

Watch the video to find out how the panel answered these questions.