Spare Change

making a difference with social marketing
by Nedra Kline Weinreich

My latest area of interest lays in the intersection between games and storytelling. Each approach by itself has great potential for engaging people in a way that more common forms of marketing do not. Whether it's an alternate reality game like Urgent:EVOKE that challenges players to solve problems in hypothetical, but real-world, scenarios, or the NANOSWARM novel and video game targeting childhood obesity prevention, when people are drawn into the action themselves, they are more likely to be moved to action in real life. See Jane McGonigal's recent TED talk on how gaming can make a better world for an eloquent introduction to how that might work.

Stories give us the opportunity to see the consequences of actions - both positive and negative. When we "get to know" fictional characters and care about what happens to them, the emotions that are evoked heighten the memorability and learning that can happen at the same time. On a related note, I'm happy to see that, in addition to the efforts of entertainment education professionals who work with television writers and producers to weave health and social issues into series plotlines, NBC Universal network execs are now directing the network's shows to do "behavior placement" of eco-friendly and health-related issues. Seeing people--whether they are fictional or real--engaging in healthy or pro-social behaviors increases perceptions of social norms and can affect viewers' attitudes toward the behavior (for better or worse, of course -- it depends on how and by whom the action is portrayed).

Throw in game elements in which someone can direct the story and try out what works and what doesn't, and you have the makings of a vicarious experience that can lead to bigger changes in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. The Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth were always fun because they were more than a passive reading experience; what kid wouldn't want to control the story? I'm enjoying an adult collaborative version of this, ongoing right now, in The Great Game, a serialized story by Tim Dedopulos in which readers get to vote on what happens next.

From a social marketing perspective, this "choose what happens next" approach in an interactive format gives us the opportunity to customize messages and content for each user. The UK's Drop the Weapons campaign created a YouTube-based interactive series called "Choose a Different Ending." At the end of each video vignette, the viewer has a decision point where they can choose whether to take a knife, which set of friends to follow, whether to fight, and is taken to the next video based on their choice.

Wahi Media is doing some exciting things with this idea, in a more sophisticated way. "Wahi" stands for "web automated human interaction." This approach involves a simulated conversation, in which a person or people in a video talk and ask questions of the viewer. Depending on the viewer's responses, the subsequent videos are tailored to provide messages that directly address their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors, as well as collecting the data for later analysis. The newly launched TeenTruth.org site from the Florida Department of Health uses a Wahi to talk to teens, parents and other audiences about the reality of the lives of teenagers. In addition to a direct "conversation," the site also includes dramatic vignettes in which characters then turn to the camera to ask what you would do or what you think. The branching is seamless, so it feels like a coherent whole.

With these ideas in the back of my mind, I was inspired by a short Choose Your Own Adventure story on Twitter by Jonah Peretti, and Fabio Gratton's subsequent comment on how the format could be used for health education. I set out to create a demo on Twitter to show how a Choose Your Own Adventure story for social marketing might play out. I focused primarily on traffic safety-related issues, as this genre of spy adventure usually involves people trying to get from one point to another without being caught. But I can think of many different issues that would lend themselves to this type of format: earthquake safety, sexual decision-making, flu prevention, and more. For nonprofits who are more interested in fundraising than behavior change, this format could still provide a way to engage potential donors or members and show why their involvement is needed.

A few caveats...
  • Twitter is not the ideal platform to use for this. The 140 character limitation makes it hard to advance the story and make it engaging. Plus, each time you click on a link, it automatically opens a new tab in your browser. I suggest you open the first link in a new window, so you can just close the whole window when you are done.
  • This demo was not created for a particular organization. If it were, the "learning pieces" would likely provide more information or links to the organization's resources for follow-up if desired.
  • This is just a quick and dirty demo. When designing a story to meet a project's behavior change objectives for a specific audience, much more time and strategic thought will go into it, so don't let the cheesy storyline obscure the format's potential. Ideally, the story would involve several different media elements, such as videos, mobile phones and puzzle-solving.
All that said, shall we play a game? Start here...

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