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Can video bridge science and policy?

Video is a storytelling format that can turn complex ideas into compelling narratives. In this article, Rob Watt reflects on some lessons from six years of using video to bridge science and policy.

Robert Watt / Published on 19 June 2018

Way back in 2012, when Twitter was but six years old and Facebook could boast of no more than 1 billion users, the think tank WRI carried out a small experiment to see which type of video content worked best to communicate climate change research.

They tested three different formats (webcam, conversation, whiteboard), asking members of the public to vote on their favourite and provide comments. There’s a really interesting post explaining the experiment, so I won’t spoil the result for you …

This set us at SEI thinking. Could we also use video to bridge science and policy? One of our first attempts saw SEI researcher Steve Cinderby describe the basics of participatory geographical information systems (P-GIS). The format drew upon lessons from the WRI study, with some modifications – the whiteboard became a flip chart and we edited in additional images to emphasise or illustrate specific points in his talk. 

Little did we know that 6 years later (native) video would be the content type to generate engagement on social media, traffic to websites and raise awareness for causes and campaigns. According to 2017 data, Tweets with video are 6 times more likely to be retweeted than tweets with gifs. And in 2016, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook users were watching 100 million hours of video per day. 

But generating clicks isn’t the only reason to work with video. It’s a storytelling format that can turn complex ideas into compelling narratives. It activates the viewer through three senses, opening up additional pathways to communicate and reinforce messages.

Since 2012, we’ve made quite a few videos. Some are highlights from an event webcast, some are animations, still more are short interviews with SEI researchers (like the video wall in our 2013 Annual Report). I’m going to take four examples from the SEI archive to explore what we’ve learnt so far in our journey to use video to bridge science and policy.

Farming for sustainable futures: A Baltic tale (2012)

Screened at final conference and workshops, over 1300 views on YouTube

Baltic COMPASS was a 4 year project to investigate how to produce food for the 90 million people living around the Baltic Sea while protecting the region’s environment.

Pulling together the threads of such a large project is a challenge. There were diverse stakeholders in 10 countries, from farmers to environmental NGOs, from local government to EU decision makers. And the project covered topics from biogas to wetlands. 

Of course, the project had a website and a range of publications, such as policy briefs, tailored to the target audiences. But the research team, led by Maria Osbeck, wanted more. They wanted the a video to summarise key findings and spark discussion of issues and possible solutions.

For the synopsis, we were lucky to be able to draw on real quotes from different project participants. Alongside the research results, the quotes provided structure for our story. As the script developed, quotes transformed into ‘characters’, whose experience and knowledge highlighted the challenges facing sustainable farming in the Baltic. We then worked with Houdini to create the animation and voice over.

The result was hugely popular at the final conference and stakeholder workshops – the quirky humour was just the spark needed to create constructive discussion across languages, sectors and borders. 

And yes … I really am the voice of the pig!

Soot! (2014)

Screened at ministerial meetings ahead of 2015 Paris climate summit, combined 800 views on YouTube

In early 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Swedish Minister of the Environment Lena Ek, environment ministers from Bangladesh, Canada and Mexico, and the Ghanaian ambassador to the U.S. launched the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC). SEI was the first non-governmental member of the CCAC, and had been carrying out pioneering work on the impacts of short-lived climate pollutants such as soot, methane and ozone. This research paved the way for a UN assessment and, ultimately, the coalition itself.

There were three things that made the coalition stand out. First, it brought together countries that, hitherto, had not seen much mutual interest in working on climate change. Second, it was a ‘coalition of the doing’ – focused on specific problems and practical solutions. Third, based on scientific evidence gathered by SEI among others, it showed the multiple benefits of tackling short-lived climate pollutants for health, climate and crops. 

For the coalition to make a difference to climate policy and on the ground, it needed to show how it was relevant to decision makers across government and business sectors. The coalition itself produced an introductory video. And as part of these early efforts to raise awareness among decision makers, SEI collaborated with the Swedish photographer and film-maker, Mattias Klum, to produce a short film to communicate the science behind the coalition. Our aim was to make the science accessible and the imperative for action clear for decision makers across government.

The film shows the reality of living with air pollution and climate change for communities, particularly in Africa. The script was carefully reviewed by the leading scientists in the fields of air pollution and climate change. And to make a connection to decision makers outside of the environmental silo, the film includes an interview with the Minister for Health in Ghana. 

The film was ready in October 2014.

It was shown at a Ministerial meeting at UN Climate Week in 2014 and at UNFCCC COP20 – reaching exactly the target audiences we had in mind for the project. We had also hoped to launch the film at an event in Sweden. Unfortunately, political realities intervened in the form of a general election, a lengthy coalition-building process and new priorities. 

A few months later we recut the footage to make a short version of the video, aimed at science journalists.

Citizen science and air pollution (2016)

Screened at multiple conferences, 540 views on YouTube

Citizen science has become a favourite term of science policy decision makers. The European Commissioner, Carlos Moedas, refers to it in speeches on open science and it appears prominently in the new proposal for European research funding, Horizon Europe. SEI has been carrying out research using citizen science methods and refining those methods since 2008. If you want to find out more about our work in this field, read our policy brief on How could citizen science support the Sustainable Development Goals? 

In 2015, SEI collaborated with community leaders in Mukuru, an informal settlement in Nairobi, to use citizen science to research their exposure to air pollution. 

One of the project goals was to support the community leaders in communicating research results within Mukuru, to local decision makers, and to other researchers. Alongside briefs and blogs, we wanted to give a voice to the citizen scientists themselves, to allow them to tell the story of air pollution in Mukuru and their participation in the project. The video was made in-house and in 2016 was selected to be shown at the largest Nordic science communication conference. It has also been screened at conferences in Kenya, Sweden, and the UK. 

Most importantly, there is now the prospect of real change for the community of Mukuru. 

In March 2017, the Nairobi City County Government declared the informal settlements of Mukuru a Special Planning Area (SPA), with unique development and environment challenges. An integrated development plan, which will address air pollution and other environmental issues, is slated to be complete by 2019. In addition, the Nairobi City County Government has embarked on a process to prepare an Air Quality Policy for the city as a whole. SEI is a partner in both of these processes.

Launching SEI’s new website (2018)

6.7m impressions on Facebook

For the launch of SEI’s new website we conducted a campaign on social media to achieve our goal to build brand awareness using the new SEI visual identity and ensure a successful launch. A successful launch would mean that our audience visited our website and signed up to the newsletter.

We used two separate set of content types to accompany posts on Facebook and Twitter: videos (animated gifs) and static images. The design and structure of the posts and videos was something we worked hard on, together with our agency Soapbox. The design of all the videos and static images followed our new visual identity to increase brand awareness and build trust by recognition. For the structure of the copy and videos we wanted to deliver a strong opening that grabbed the viewer’s attention, and then provide detail on what SEI had done about the issue and the impact of our work. To drive conversions, we ended our posts with a clear call to action. The structure was quite strict, but with freedom and flexibility in terms of messaging.

For this campaign we used the same messages, videos and images for Facebook and Twitter. But we could see from the analytics that the campaign was less successful on Twitter. So we redirected our focus to Facebook. With more time we could have tweaked and optimized the messages and videos for Twitter, something we will do for future campaigns.

The video format performed better than static images for both conversion and awareness raising. We ended up spending approximately 80% of the media budget on the video format due to its success. Total number of impressions on Facebook was almost 6 700 000 and total unique outbound clicks on Facebook was just above 195 000. The campaign ran for three weeks and the average weekly users of the SEI website was almost 10 times higher than normal. We were also able to increase the number of newsletter subscribers by 10%. The results were much better than we dared expect.

What have we learnt?

  1. Know your audience! Tell a story that resonates with them and motivates action. And do so on a channel or in a place that reaches them.
  2. Find the soul in your story. Ask yourself: What is the one thing that you want the viewer to remember well enough to tell a colleague at the coffee machine? And then combine that with the subject matter, the place and people to find the right format and images. Our recent video, Geothermal landscapes, used drone footage to convey the dramatic scenery of the Kenyan countryside and the contrast with the latest energy technology buried into these ancient hillsides.
  3. Grab the attention of your audience. It’s the first few seconds that will determine whether the (casual) viewer watches more, or clicks away. This is not to be dismissed as ‘just a social media thing’. It’s a storytelling thing! The stories that are retold are those which capture the audience in their opening lines, in the framing of the first shot. This means working on the dramaturgy of the script and killing your darlings.
  4. Match format and length to channel. That probably means short on YouTube, shorter on Facebook and shorter still on Twitter. And don’t forget that many videos on Facebook are watched without sound, or perform better with text to get the key message(s) across. Shape is also channel specific – square works best on Facebook because of how video posts appear on mobiles.
  5. Define success in advance. In some cases this is ‘reach’, others ‘impact’. For the launch of SEI’s new website the ‘awareness’ campaigns delivered mainly impressions and the ‘conversion’ campaigns were truly optimized for driving clicks to the website. For Soot! we knew the audience – ministers and senior officials – and made sure that the video was screened for them at times when there was the opportunity to absorb and act on the information. 

What’s next?

  • Data-driven video stories. There’s tons of data from social media viewing habits that can be harnessed to create more effective video content. Getting hold of the data and interpreting it is the challenge. But Story Engine is one tool that SEI has begun to look at…
  • Be even more channel specific. It’s time to move into channel specific A/B testing, and to make sure that native video is optimised for the platform. We should also think of YouTube as a social media channel and social learning platform.
  • Sharper targeting and KPIs. Consider geographic and gender targeting. Use ad groups to differentiate countries depending on their income levels. Try small test groups and, if necessary to reach your target audience, use ad groups for gender.
  • Collaborative storytelling. I’m a strong believer that video content is more powerful if it is developed together with stakeholders. This is more than just interviews with partners (although there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that). This is about creating a shared narrative where research is presented in a practical context. Collaborative storytelling gives a voice to the people, places and problems that lie behind the research. It can empower communities to seek change. It can be the bridge between science and policy.

Written by

Robert Watt
Robert Watt

Engagement Director

SEI Headquarters

Design and development by Soapbox.