Presenting at the Voices of Change Conference

Three Promising Ways That Nonprofits Can Distribute Digital Stories Online

A presentation for the 6th International Digital Storytelling Conference, at UMass (alma mater!) and Smith College, on September 25, 2015.

A. Distribution and Digital Stories


The paradigmatic mode of digital storytelling distribution is the live showing, ideally with the storytellers present to contextualize their own stories. Online distribution of digital stories is often an afterthought. The no-frills gallery is probably the most common online distribution method.

But nonprofits that sponsor a digital storytelling workshop often want some or all of the resulting stories posted online, where they might continue to do organizationally valuable work.

Problem: Digital stories require context and attention; they are singular and resist comparison. The networked, social web, however, urges spreadability and velocity, counting and ranking.

Methods: With the help of students, I have been gathering collections of nonprofit digital personal experience narratives (DPENs) and aggregating them into a searchable and sortable database, the Stories That Work Database. For this presentation, I’ve used that database to explore trends in how nonprofits are distributing DPENs online.

B. Three Promising Ways to Distribute Digital Stories Online

1. Feature well-contextualized “showcase stories” on the nonprofit’s website, with the aim to spur site visitors to immediate online action.

AimsCapture attention > transport > spur action (e.g., donate, learn more, subscribe)
ToolsContext-building platforms with call-to-action (CTA) buttons (e.g., Exposure, blogging software, Medium); YouTube CTA overlays
AdvantagesRequires only a few stories; allows users to take direct (and measurable) action after watching
WarningsVery personal stories are probably not right for showcasing; to listen and acknowledge is different than to listen and act; showcasing requires selecting some stories over others

2. Aggregate many stories into an online storybank/storycenter that encourages its visitors to explore, and also enables the nonprofit to extract and circulate individual stories to key audiences.

AimsRepresent complexity of your organization or issue with a polyphony of stories; encourage immersive exploration; allow targeted outreach and serendipitous finds
ToolsContext-building platforms (e.g., blogging software, Exposure); searchable/sortable platforms (e.g., Tumblr); auto-generated social posts that push viewers back to full collection
AdvantagesDigital stories can be combined with other media in a collection; a big collection visually reinforces an organization's commitment to people; encourages an ongoing habit of storytelling
WarningsCan encourage over-branded, standardized stories; requires a lot of stories

3. Build an online space where a public can form around an issue important to the nonprofit, with key digital stories as “anchor texts” that invite others to contribute.

AimsInvite others to contribute their personal narratives, and in so doing to identify with a cause and form a public around it
ToolsUser submission forms and platforms; auto-generated social posts that push viewers to full collection, with an invitation to contribute
AdvantagesA way to focus on an issue, not self-promotion; stories spur more stories; users who contribute have more of a reason to share/spread
WarningsMust have tolerance for less shapely stories; organization must be committed to giving public more than just an opportunity to tell story (e.g., advocating on their behalf)

C. Conclusions

  1. Very personal digital stories are probably still best left offline.
  2. It is easier than ever to provide rich context that travels with a story, as well as to push viewers back to a full collection of stories.
  3. As web technologies change, distribution possibilities do, too (i.e., Web 1.0=display; Web 2.0=social/online community; Web 3.0=modular content circulation).
  4. If online distribution is an aim, developing context around the final story might be integrated into the digital storytelling production process.