From advocacy to authority – how to create an open source documentary to help your cause

Last week I wrote about the British documentary “Us Now” and what I thought about its content. Today I want to talk about the lessons that can be learned from the films website:

In case you are wondering what this has to do with non-profits: I know many NGOs who produce feature-length advocacy films to state their case against e.g. climate change, human trafficking, dragnet-fishing etc. And I am certain that many of them could be greatly enhanced by an approach like “Us Now”.

1. Make a film project, not a movie

The biggest difference is in what you see as the outcome. Many people consider their work to be done once the final cut has been made and the film has been screened, burned on DVD, uploaded … whatever. Most of the time, the audience is simply seen as a mass of people towards whom you then project a certain message – a classic one-to-many approach.

But if you see your product as a film-project, then this implies that the work is not done after your final cut; it implies that this is something that can be built on.

2. Think “resource” not  “movie”

If you are looking at the film as a project and not as a 60 minute audio-visual presentation, then the next logical step is that everything that you have collected to produce the film is a resource. In the case of “Us Now” they made the original, uncut interviews available on the site and through YouTube. The BBC is currently working on a similar project called “Digital Revolution” where the rushes are already being made available while the film is still in production.

Both the BBC and “Us Now” offer interview transcripts which helps them with search engines (remember, search engines cannot read videos but love text).

Ideally you would assign meta data to both the text files and the videos so that users can find related interviews from different projects. If you have the resources to go one extra mile, you could even create an interactive transcript for each interview, like they do for the “TED talks“.

The point is, that you are suddenly offering people a resource that they can use in their own work. Think about how many videos were produced about climate change. Now imagine, you could use what other NGOs have already produced on the same topic. If enough non-profits would act like that, then everybody would win. But it obviously requires a change in attitude. Not only do we have to become comfortable with having others use material that we have paid for, we also have to become comfortable with using other peoples materials. I don’t know how comfortable the WWF would be to reuse bits of an interview performed by Greenpeace.

Interestingly, some of the big players are already working together on non-branded joint advocacy videos for big events like the climate change conference COP15.

3. Open a dialogue

This should be a no-brainer to everyone working with social media. You should give people a chance to discuss your topic with you. Obviously, by uploading the video to YouTube as a whole, as well as in parts, you can invite people to post video responses. However, you should find a way to display these on your site as well and not only have them sit on YouTube. Keep in mind though that such a dialogue requires resources. “Us Now” for example obviously doesn’t have those resources which is why this part of their site falls short of expectation. It’ll be interesting to see what the BBC has in store once they have completed their project.

4. Go Creative Commons

In order to achieve maximum distribution, give your film a creative commons license! “Us Now” can be downloaded in any format you can think of – including as a torrent! I don’t know whether that was the intention from the beginning, or whether it just happened, but it shows that once you set you content free, there is no limit to how and where your message might be distributed to.

From advocacy to authority

If you create your next advocacy film according to what is outlined above, you will see that you are suddenly no longer in the business of producing advocacy films, but you are in the business of establishing your organization as an online authority for the topics that your non-profit or NGO is fighting for. And isn’t that one of the reasons you were asked to produce that original advocacy video to begin with?

What do you think? Please share your thoughts below.

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