3 Types of Impact You Can Visualize With StoryPilot


This post was originally published on MediaShift.org

There are thousands of meaningful ways to create positive change with storytelling, and metrics to measure the success of those changes. With all of these possibilities, where do you even start thinking about measuring impact? This was the problem we had in mind when we created StoryPilot, an online platform that tracks the creation and impact of over 500 social issue documentaries. We used a few simple questions to organize information and provide a starting place for thinking about the difference that a film can make in the world:

  • What issue is the film addressing?
  • How was the film made?
  • Who was involved?
  • What changes were we able to observe?

Knowing that every film’s story is different, we gathered publicly available data that speaks to broadly applicable types of impact. Here are three things you can look for on StoryPilot and how to to interpret what the data is telling you.

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Benchmarking social issue documentaries on Twitter

Twitter has become a force at the intersection of entertainment, information, and marketing—especially for filmmakers trying to create a personal connection to their audience. But what do we really know about how documentary filmmakers use Twitter? How can we quantify what a “successful” Twitter account looks like? And are differences in Twitter activity associated with other qualities of documentaries?

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A new perspective on documentary film

As we observed in a 2012 blog post, the last 14+ years have seen a substantial rise in the number of documentaries produced, particularly documentaries that focus on social issues.

Given this trend, we wondered: what issues or topics are most prominent among filmmakers working in the field? Does coverage of a specific issue ebb and flow over time? What can we learn from looking at the field in aggregate?

We turned to the growing database that will fuel StoryPilot to find out. (At the time of writing, the collection includes detail on 433 social impact documentaries released between 2000 and 2014.)

This post kicks off a series in which we’ll share some of our early findings about the social issue documentary landscape, in order to put data about documentaries and social issues into the hands of storytellers. Our goal is to help everyone find meaning in the data, and shed light onto the intersection of film, social issue campaigns, and society.

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Building and analyzing issue-focused social networks on Twitter

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For media makers with aspirations of social change, we at HI have established a number of best practices for assessing impact. An important first step is to know yourself: set concrete goals for change along with realistic time frames for accomplishing them. The next step is to know your audience: identify the audiences that you hope to reach, as well as those most likely to be receptive to your message, and who can help facilitate your objectives.

Let’s consider a hypothetical film about the American healthcare system (see our previous case study). Although this issue affects all Americans, those already interested in and engaged with the issue are a more likely audience, not to mention potential influencers. How do we find such individuals? They may comment in one or many forums—on social media sites, in newspapers or the blogosphere, on television. As a first pass, we can look to a public forum that comprises overlapping interest networks in which healthcare is actively discussed: Twitter.

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Theory and the unseen forces of impact

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For documentaries that tackle social issues, financial bottom lines may not be the best indicators of impact. Social issue documentaries have other benchmarks of success: filmmakers want to know if their film reached its audience, changed the way people think about an issue, or inspired change in the real world. Our experience working with filmmakers has illuminated the unique challenges of measuring the impact of social issue documentaries. We see the need to clarify what “impact” might look like—without boxing in filmmakers by using overly-specific methods or definitions that don’t apply to a wide range of projects and goals.

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A better way to analyze social impact

Film Comparison Screen

At Harmony Institute, we’ve been working on a better way to analyze the social impact of narrative media. In the past, we’ve researched and reported on social impact on a case-by-case basis. But media projects don’t exist in isolation; they are released into a discursive universe and reverberate within that social space. We recognized the need for evaluating impact in a broader, fundamentally comparative sense, and the web app we’ve been developing aims to do just that. It’s called ImpactSpace. By bringing together big, credible data on films and social issues, enabling comparative, longitudinal analysis, and presenting a fun, user-friendly interface, ImpactSpace is a platform for insightful impact assessment. We’re excited to reveal what this new tool offers to media makers, funders, and researchers, as well as social issue advocates.

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