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Storytelling and Metrics: A Delicate Dance for Documentarians

*Reposted from The Media Impact Project*

Pushing the art of nonfiction storytelling is at front and center of our work as filmmakers. By being true to that craft and faithful to its ability to expose the core of our common humanity, we believe that deeper authentic community dialogue around particular issues can be achieved. Visual storytelling has the power to evoke reflection and even individual behavior change. Combined with a carefully designed engagement campaign, documentaries can create significant societal impact. A successful engagement strategy includes trusted partnerships, strategic messaging, and thoughtful engagement both on and offline – all to deepen the relationship with the target audience. Metrics can help us understand and convey the extent to which we can create this kind of impact with our target audience. What we have learned with our latest feature documentary, American Promise, is that the measurement of impact must itself be thoughtful, and cannot be limited by only quantitative data, as it does not always represent the most meaningful kinds of engagement. Instead metrics should be thought of as contributing to an overarching analytical narrative that examines one on one dialogue sparked by a film’s issue(s), and an analysis that sheds light on the better uses of storytelling that help push for both individual behavior and systemic change.

“Developing strategic partnerships is essential for both funding and successful engagement. WithAmerican Promise, we saw an opportunity to contribute to the efforts of organizations already building a movement to close the black male achievement gap in education.” Strategically designed focus group research and discussions supported by entities such as The Fledgling Fund and the Ford Foundation during the production of American Promise, resulted in trusting partnerships with key organizations that remain instrumental to the success of the film’s campaign, continuing to this day. By the time American Promise’s release occurred, a total of 66 national partners and 118 community organizations had mobilized to support the film. Stronger  partnerships between organizations were also forged as a result of their collaborative use of the film; for example, United Way and America’s Promise Alliance seized the opportunity to work with The Arthur M. Blank Foundation to deepen their work in Atlanta by usingAmerican Promise, and supporting our participation in a two-day long public workshop series. These types of collaborative opportunities sparked by the resonance of the film’s story and community engagement effort sparked local funding support in a number other cities: Omaha and Minneapolis to name a few..

The initial partner conversations we had in the planning phase also helped narrow our priority target constituencies – African American parents and teachers of black boys between birth and age twelve. With specific target audiences identified we focused on understanding their needs, and worked to develop specific tools for engagement, including a book, a mobile app, screening guides, and workshops. We embraced an evidence-based approach to develop the impact metrics of the campaign, such as after-screening surveys, partners’ metrics, and online data analysis (webviews, google trends, etc.). For example, the term ‘implicit bias’, a main point of discussion in our speaking engagements and workshops, was used on average 4 times daily in news headlines prior to the campaign, and is now used 20 times on average and continues to rise. Though we can not attribute this increase entirely to the American Promise campaign, we believe we have contributed to the public discourse and increased awareness around this issue. In conjunction with these metrics, we seek qualitative measurements such as interviews, quotes, personal narratives and empirical evidence gathered in person and online. Not only does this allow us to contextualize some of the data collected, it is a robust demonstration of our target audience’s personal and often deep commitment to change.

Examining the reach of our target audience is not only critical to quantitative metrics, but also valuable to our understanding of a much harder to measure metric – gauging a film’s ability to spark conversation that  affects individual behavior and attitudes. This understanding was developed over time with offline community work aimed at building trust and engaging in direct community dialogue that can at times be uncomfortable but necessary. These conversations gave us a first hand idea of  individual and community needs, and served to expand and deepen our campaign tools, such as our Promise Clubs, a national parent affinity group network, which directly benefits our target community. We continue to learn about parent groups, small community screenings, group meetings, and schools not directly related to our outreach work that have incorporated tools associated with the American Promise campaign. We can only assume many more have occurred across the country that we are unaware of. Paradoxically, a main goal of our community engagement work is precisely to push for our target communities to take ownership of the campaign tools and instigate their own smaller level engagement work. Yet, once these interactions are sparked, we in turn relinquish a certain level of control and ability to measure their impact. This direct offline community interaction combined with the personal vulnerable nature of our story continue to have a hard to measure exponential ripple effect that is deep and long-lasting. Just recently in our third trip to Atlanta, the rich conversation that occurred after a public screening at the Atlanta International School extended to well over two hours. If not for the plane, we would have stayed longer. Smaller parent and educator groups formed to continue the exchange throughout the coming months and next school year. This direct engagement highlights the potentially unquantifiable emotional impact and continued conversation a film can trigger, and is a better demonstration of impact than easily digestible numbers such as attendance, or demographics. These exchanges speak to the heart of ‘taking action’ and inform our impact metrics narrative.

The most meaningful moments of impact are often captured in conversations with our target audience and feedback from our partners. “[We wanted] to dig deeper in our work, but we needed a narrative, a human story that could serve as a catalyst to make our work happen in an inclusive way that does not point fingers” said a school district representative in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. In many cases, American Promise has provided a way to reach that pivotal point of discussion where a community can lean into a difficult conversation on the road towards change. It is crucial to demonstrate to funders an understanding of the audience, and to discuss the measures for campaign success based on the audience’s needs. When we discuss funding, metrics, and impact, we should all be asking (and many of us are), what is the intrinsic value that this analysis brings and how do we develop more comprehensive metrics that are inclusive of the entire engagement conversation.

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