Digital Storytelling: Maximizing Advocacy's Impact


Many nonprofit organizations use social media platforms for advocacy.  They raise awareness of pressing issues and also provide guidance on how to take action. Recently, through the use of successful advocacy, the arts industry, among others, saved the NEA from losing its funding. Americans for the Arts lead the charge by relaying a clear message to its supporters through multiple channels. On social media, the organization mobilized its supporters to share their arts-related experiences, encouraging more people to take action by using #SAVEtheNEA. Their success was due to their effective use of digital storytelling.

While sharing information is important, digital storytelling has the power to move people. Harrison Monarth stated in his Harvard Business Review article: “Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.” Two notable examples of digital storytelling through social media are the WATERisLIFE and KONY 2012 campaigns.  WATERisLIFE was highly successful reaching its goals while KONY 2012, started with effective storytelling, but ended with a lack of action.

WATERisLIFE combined digital video storytelling and Twitter to “create real change in the world” (Pasi 2014). The organization borrowed tweets from #FirstWorldProblems to create a video series for its “First World Problems" campaign about the scarcity of clean water. The story that WATERisLIFE successfully created, helped individuals in first-world nations to realize the impact and depth of this issue in developing countries. This awareness campaign came with a call to action. WATERisLIFE received enough donations to provide clean water to developing countries for more than 1 million days (Pasi 2014).

Source: Screenshot by author from " First World Problems Anthem " YouTube video.

Source: Screenshot by author from "First World Problems Anthem" YouTube video.


KONY 2012 by Invisible Children created one 30-minute video that went viral on the internet in March of 2012. Although it spread awareness so rapidly, it did not outline an action plan aside from spreading awareness to stop Kony. Invisible Children was criticized for oversimplifying the conflict, and for focusing too much on making films rather than finding practical solutions to the problem. Although the campaign didn't initially have the desired results, it left a blueprint for nonprofit organizations to follow as a digital storytelling model. Eventually, Invisible Children was able to accomplish other successes surrounding the campaign, like getting legislative support, weakening the LRA’s force, and making it safer for the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.

Source: Screenshot by author from " KONY 2012 " YouTube video.

Source: Screenshot by author from "KONY 2012" YouTube video.

For better or worse, however, many of these social media campaigns have faced a similar problem to #Kony2012: Once you have the online support, how to use it for real world impact?
— Adam Taylor, The Washington Post

Digital storytelling is a powerful tool to move people’s emotions, but forgetting to have a strategy in place once the content goes viral is critical to the success of the campaign. Effective, digital storytelling has two requirements: to raise awareness and to initiate action for a cause. Awareness can often become isolated in social media where no action is taken beyond that. If not done well, social media can end a campaign.

Whether an organization is trying to build a viral campaign or simply trying to raise awareness among their constituents on social media, here are helpful tips on how to improve digital storytelling posts:

Illustrate the Goal. What is the desired goal of this campaign? Determine what the feasible parts are to reach the desired goal and what can be measured? If there are multiple parts to the goal, create a series of short digital stories to show audiences how the campaign can impact in different ways. Here is another example from WATERisLIFE’s First World Problems.

Be Direct. Craft a targeted message so audiences become interested in learning what to do next. The message should also stand out against the other content on social media. “Aim to create a video that is long enough to illustrate your point, but short enough to keep your audience interested.” Here more tips on video advocacy from Adam Searing.

Outline the Action. Provide an action plan of the next steps to reach the goal. Data can deepen the impact of the messaging, creating memorable impressions on those who read it. Share resources that advocates can use to learn more about the cause and tools to facilitate action. Remember to include a component of urgency. United We Dream uses data and images to urge advocates to take action for DREAMERs.

Measurement can be challenging when determining if digital storytelling was effective. The number of views does not measure how many audiences actually saw your content or took action. Legislative action is the main metric of measurement, but it is not specific to the efforts that one organization has taken. According to Beth Kanter, “an important design component is the strategy for spreading knowledge and skills for participants by using small experiments with some measurement that help them improve and learn.”

Instead of creating one large digital storytelling post, create smaller posts and determine purposeful measurements for each. Some metrics can be: how many viewers clicked on the campaign’s page or have the number of individual donations changed since the campaign? Short surveys can also be distributed to learn what shared content was effective and led to action. Learn from the metrics to improve efforts.

The next time your organization uses digital storytelling for advocacy, remember to follow these steps to maximize the impact. Do not just use digital storytelling to spread awareness, make a call for action plan. When creating content, remember to use a balanced combination of data, videos, images, and real stories to move audiences. Produce content with a direct message, emphasize the desired goal, and highlight what action the reader must to take to get there. The ultimate outcome is to move your supporters past the awareness phase in social media and mobilize them to take action.

What are some of your organization’s digital storytelling efforts? Please share in the comments below what worked for your organization!



Haidt, Lewis. “Four Reasons Nonprofit Should Consider the Authentic Storytelling Method.” Beth’s Blog | How Connected Nonprofits Leverage Networks and Data for Social Change. October 23, 2017. Accessed November 21, 2017.

Lama, Tsering, and Lewis Haidt. “Authentic Storytelling with Greenpeace: A 10-Step Process.” Webinar, TechSoup. September 14, 2017. Accessed November 21, 2017.

Monarth, Harrison. “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool.” Harvard Business Review. March 11, 2014. Accessed December 1, 2017.

Munoz, Barbara. “Elevating Advocacy Voices for Children Through Social Media.” Beth’s Blog | How Connected Nonprofits Leverage Networks and Data for Social Change. November 26, 2012. Accessed November 21, 2017.

Pasi, Emily. "Social Media and Advocacy: Digitally Sharing the Story." Journal of Housing and Community Development 71, no. 1 (Jan, 2014): 25-28. Accessed November 19, 2017.

Searing, Adam. “Video Advocacy – It’s Easier than it Looks.” Center for Children & Families of the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. April 13, 2012. Accessed November 21, 2017.

Searing, Adam. “Video Training Manual for Advocacy Organizations.” North Carolina Justice Center. 2011. Accessed November 21, 2017.

Taylor, Adam. "Was #Kony2012 a failure?" The Washington Post. December 16, 2014. Accessed November 14, 2017.

"Five Years After KONY 2012. How Have Things Changed?" Invisible Children. March 18, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2017.