Think tanks and videos: are they an effective tool to communicate research?

29 March 2016
SERIES Think tanks and video 12 items

I (very) recently joined the On Think Tanks team as an editorial manager. One of my first set of tasks was to create a series about Think Tanks and Videos from content that was already on the site.

The first step was obvious: a broad search and bookmarking of all relevant posts. Let me state the obvious (again): there were a lot of relevant pieces on the site.  I skimmed through all the bookmarked articles, interviews, videos, how-to’s, opinion pieces, etc.  and picked out the ones that specifically mentioned videos, even if just in passing. As a communicator, I knew a decision had to be made: who is this series for? I know the demographics of the audiences of On Think Tanks, and that’s exactly it: it’s audiences vs audience. So I asked myself the same question the roundabout way: what is this series for? Is it a resource, is it informative or is advocating for the use of videos? Once this question was answered, I could move on to actually editing the series and presenting it.

I share this with you because it is the very basic process that everyone should go through when they are thinking about creating a communications piece:

  1. research the tools available (what is out there and what is affordable in terms of money and time?),
  2. choose the most appropriate one,
  3. identify the target audience or the intention of the product,
  4. produce a piece that will best reach them, and
  5. have a dissemination plan.

For instance: I should not decide to do a video to publish on Vimeo if my target audience is a group of researchers doing field work in the middle of the amazonian jungle and my intention is to have someone upload raw footage captured on a West African river bank for someone to download and edit here…  and I have no money. Be realistic in your pursuit- sometimes keeping it simple and accessible, ensuring continuity, and creating a simple communications tool is the best way about it.

Hence, this series follows my own thinking process as I explored On Think Tanks and attempted to piece together a story.

A good starting point of the series is Enrique Mendizabal’s article on Communications as an Orchestra, in which he talks about the importance of not only having a communications strategy, but also of choosing the right outlets according to the organisation’s capacity, budget, team availability, commitment, and assigning responsibilities.

While still in the process of making decisions, three communication experts and co-founders at WonkComms, Leonora Mary, Nick Scott and Richard Darlington offer thirteen tools think tank communicators should use in 2014This post was published over two years ago, but the information is still current. Numbers three, four and five are specific to videos, and also  serve as comparative resources. An animation will probably require some kind of budget for talent (an illustrator, animator, motion graphics, etc), a budget for a video will depend on what kind of video you want to produce, and a vine is free. This post offers thirteen possible tools to pick from, of which ten do not include any kind of videography presentation. Again, it is all about the audience and what is the best tool to reach them.

Once you have decided what kind of communications tool to create, there are some budget decisions to make. A while ago, a colleague and I were preparing a pitch for a small grant for a short film we wanted to make. On the terms of reference provided by the grantors, they asked for a breakdown of the costs and included a little tip: “don’t tell us you will spend our money on websites and marketing stuff when you can get that stuff free online.” I was initially appalled, feeling this was the kind of attitude that was putting designers and web programmers out of jobs and infesting the world with ugly template designs. I quickly found out that is hardly the case, as these “free” resources are often created by those very professionals themselves. If you have a bit of time, are internet savvy and have the patience to learn something new, then the internet is your world to go shopping for free. On Responding to Digital Disruption of Traditional Communications: Reusing the Wheel, Nick Scott lists more than ten free online resources that can aid in fulfilling your communication needs, including training manuals and videos.

There should be a synergy between every communications piece that is created not only on a subject or theme, but also from an organisation as a whole. An organisation’s voice should be defined- the audience should always know who the message is coming from. A video, a report, an infographic, a newsletter, a tweet… basically ANYTHING meant to reach an external audience, has to have an organisation’s stamp on it. This has always been something I have advocated for- branding is not about a logo, it is about what an organisation stands for and how that is represented. I have seen organisations with terrible logos do superb external communications pieces that reflect their company values and motivations. Likewise, I’ve seen companies with amazing graphic and visual identities produce pieces of external communications that say absolutely nothing about their value as an organisation. Communications have to be integrated, especially in a time where we have a number of digital platforms to share information from.

Florencia Durón, writes about the use of digital communications

(…) communicating, at the end of the day, means connecting with other people; not just informing.

That’s exactly what digital platforms offer us; the opportunity to interact with people anywhere that share our same interests. Florencia offers very helpful insights to keep in mind when producing communication tools as part of a communications strategy, such as videos. I suggest we step into this topic with an overarching view on how important it is to reach a specific audience and what can be done to achieve that.

Vanesa Weyrauch focuses on identifying the best  way to reach an audience and shares some hints on how to do this. Bear in mind that videos are not for everyone: you first have to identify the nature of your research and who its biggest impact should be on. Once the audience is identified, Vanesa offers guides to identify which tool is best and what the hierarchy of the products produced should be according to the main audiences. There is no point in investing time, effort and money on producing a tool that will be missed by the very people the research is intended for. Vanesa identifies social media and videos most successful amongst the general public, specially other organisations, university students/young people and the media.

It is not complicated to produce a video, but they require a level of commitment. There are a number of (free) tools available and there is also a lot of talent in the world looking for the opportunity to expand their portfolio. If you decide a video is the best way to communicate your research to an audience, you should ask yourself these three things: who will be the lead of the project? how much money and time will I spend on it? how will I distribute it? The smaller details tend to fall into the subquestions of these: the length will depend on how much time (and money) is  spent on it, the production team will depend on how much money is spent as well as who will be leading the project, the content should have been solved when deciding on a video as the best outlet, the quality and imagery will depend again on budgets, etc. Once all of this has fallen into place, we have some great resources for you:

In this post from 2012, you will find a compilation of different types of videos think tanks can use for several purposes. Most of these can be produced by yourself, with simple (free) online resources. This is a great place to see some examples and start analysing what kind of video you want to produce.

Also from 2012 is Andrea Moncada’s post on Video and Data Visualisation Examples for think tanks from the Igarape Institute. Here you will find a more complex production, which obviously involved not only a budget, but also collaboration with filmmakers and photographers. This piece was intended to generate awareness and also to serve as an advocacy tool for a large network of partners.

In his article on how to make a compelling policy video, Michael Kleiman, poses the problem and possible solutions to the role of videos in think tanks. He identifies a lack of popularity for videos amongst think tankers and policy makers, proposes reasons to this, followed by steps that can be taken to solve it. He also offers hints on how to produce better videos to reach appropriate audiences and insight on dissemination platforms (twitter vs. facebook). He suggests partnerships when creating larger video productions to help with funding and concludes:

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.

Building on helpful hints for DIY video productions, Diego Velasquez offers some great practical tips to shooting a video on your own. Something I have learned through my career is that not having a budget to produce a flashy video or visual piece is not a reason to not produce anything at all. You may not be able to bring a professional videographer to your event and pay for filming and editing days, but that does not mean you should not document it. Diego offers some great tips on how to shoot with your smartphone and create a good product following some simple guidelines.

And if money is really scarce, Jeff Knezovich put together a great presentation on Vines, Twitter’s video app. Although only six seconds long, Vines can carry a message across and are a great resource to create a series of short videos with straight to the point messaging.

To conclude with practical tips on how to produce a video, On Think Tanks has several resources that offer advice on how to make a “talking head” video, which can be a powerful tool to convey important messages, give some variety to a blog, or to have an influential person deliver the message themselves. Talking head videos are often low-cost and can be easy to produce. This post offers advice on planning, setting up, editing and preparing to share.  

Research has to be communicated, that is not even up for debate anymore. The range of digital platforms we have available to share this research can be overwhelming. Nevertheless, identifying the correct platform is imperative. For the very old school like myself, the dream would be to produce a short video with a filmmaking crew and have it screened as part of the opening shorts to a feature film that speaks to the same cause (an independent film of course). However, we are in 2016 and a) the current budget for research activities often does not include high-end cinematographic productions and b) the world revolves around a digital space. If we are talking about viewing your video on a big(ger) screen, the best case scenario is that your film will be screened at a conference where your peers will watch it together and then discuss. Most likely though, your video, with or without a budget, will be viewed on the same device people use to snap a picture of their breakfast (or to watch cats and cucumbers). If it catches their interest, they will look it up again on their laptops. Whatever you produce- video, print or audio- you have to think of it for a digital platform. This isn’t bad- it means you can quantify the number of views, you can wage people’s reactions, you can share it easily, etc.

I have produced a number of videos in the past, some for flashy NGOs and others as advocacy pieces for issues that deserve attention. At the completion of some of these, I realised that the client had no dissemination plan. That is, at the least, a waste of money and time. A video’s grand finale is not supposed to be a long life in a pen drive in your drawer. There has to be a plan, and in a world where people like watching cats and cucumbers videos daily, you have to make some buzz around them. Embrace the digital world, challenge it, and use it to its full potential to benefit you.

Nick Scott explains ODI’s award-winning online strategy, and how the team of researchers at ODI has championed online ways of working and communicating.

I want to end this series with an article by Enrique Mendizabal on the future of researchers where he highlights the importance of researchers also being good communicators. Enrique makes a point of communication not being exclusively on a communications team’s turf, but also on that of the researchers. He talks about identifying the available channels and tools, choosing those that best fit the needs of the research, and the pros of cons of digital dissemination. He stresses the need for research organisations to keep with the times, and change as funding models and research cultures change. This is relevant when we talk about videos and think tanks because it brings it back to organisations making an effort to communicate their research and use all the available tools available.