Transforming the climate conversation through social video

Over the last two decades, non-profit organizations have tried to influence U.S. consumer belief in anthropogenic, or human-driven, climate change. During that time, many high profile campaigns have been launched, from the Evangelical Environmental Network’s What Would Jesus Do? campaign in 2000 to Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection’s bipartisan We Can Solve It campaign in 2008 to 350.org’s Do the Math campaign in 2012.

While each campaign recorded its own successes, consumer data suggests that their collective impact on consumer beliefs has been nominal. Today, only a slim majority of Americans (57 percent) believe that climate change is caused by human activity, a percentage largely unchanged since Gallup's Environment poll started in 2001.

Of course, there are many reasons why such campaigns might not have had broader impact. The campaigns may not have reached enough skeptics of anthropogenic climate change, or if they did, may have delivered messages that did not resonate or were discounted relative to counterarguments made by media organizations such as Fox News.

Former hedge fund executive Tom Steyer is already planning the next climate campaign through his super PAC NextGen Climate Action. NextGen intends to influence voting behavior in the midterm election, with the goal of electing public officials more likely to pass climate change legislation.

Taking a page from Obama’s 2012 reelection playbook, NextGen plans to connect one-on-one with voters — including skeptics of anthropogenic climate change — through tailored messages believed to have the best chance at swaying votes. While this latest effort is laudable, NextGen faces challenges similar to previous climate campaigns, namely, motivating skeptics to listen to its message and trust in the messenger that delivers it.

Advertisers face similar challenges in influencing consumers today through traditional advertisements. A recent Nielsen survey (PDF) indicates that, for Americans, “recommendations from people that [they] know” is, by far, the most trusted form of advertising (84 percent, up 6 percentage points from 2007.)

What this suggests is that the best way to influence consumer beliefs on climate change is to have trusted family and friends deliver the message, not advertisers. But to do so, an advertiser still faces high hurdles in motivating some people to watch messages delivered directly from the advertiser and then share them, whether by email, text, social network or word of mouth, across social circles. Such shared messages are impactful, not just because they come from a trusted source, but also because they come with an endorsement — implicitly or explicitly — from that person.

So, how do advertisers motivate consumers to share ads?

Leading global advertisers such as P&G, Samsung, Chrysler and Ford have delivered repeated success by engaging hundreds of millions of consumers through choice — or user-initiated — video. This is how it works: video ads are placed amongst native content on publisher sites across the web. When consumers find them relevant to their experience, they click and view them. To an advertiser, choice video is still an ad. But, to a consumer, it is content — and content that consumers choose to watch, and share if compelled to do so.

Non-profits and green brands such as Seventh Generation and Method also have leveraged choice video to engage consumers. Advertisers leverage choice video not just because it generates media efficiencies as shared (or earned) views are free, but because it also drives real impact, as demonstrated in multiple brand studies conducted jointly by Visible Measures and Insights Express, a leading research company.

Let’s take a closer look at some successful non-profit campaigns. One example is the Kony 2012 campaign launched by the non-profit organization Invisible Children. This campaign featured a 30-minute, documentary-style video that engaged viewers with a gripping story of a boy forced into being a child soldier fighting for Joseph Kony, a brutal rebel leader in Africa. In all, more than 229 million viewers have watched this video, making it one of the most viewed video campaigns of all time.

The campaign’s success not only was measured by its viewership, but also by how many viewers felt compelled to share it.

So the question becomes how does an advertiser motivate viewers to share a video, even one with a storyline as dark as this? The answer is straightforward: viewers share when they feel rewarded for doing so.

In the case of Kony 2012, the campaign was positioned to viewers as a way to build awareness for Joseph Kony’s atrocities in the hope that by making him famous, governments would come under pressure to take action to stop him. Viewers readily shared and engaged with the video across their social networks and, in return, gained a sense of personal satisfaction in knowing that their actions were helping to bring Kony to justice.

Most social videos, fortunately, tell a more positive story than Kony 2012's. One recent example is a video campaign launched by Thai mobile operator TrueMove H, "Giving Is the Best Communications." This gripping three-minute video tells the story of a storekeeper’s generosity toward a small boy that is repaid 30 years later. It has garnered over 16 million views to date from around the world — many of them generated through social sharing.

Viewers watch this video because it tells a universally appealing story that transcends cultural and language barriers to emotionally connect with viewers. Arguably, viewers have been sharing it because they get satisfaction from inspiring others — or perhaps even bragging rights of sort from being the first in their social group to share it. Regardless, the sharing of this video comes with an implicit or explicit endorsement from a trusted source to watch it.

Now, a similar opportunity exists to leverage choice video to influence consumer beliefs about climate change. Success of such a video campaign hinges on at least three things.

First, a campaign must craft a compelling story that all viewers — climate change believers and skeptics alike — want to watch. There are many ways to do this creatively, of course, but those that tell a universal story may have the broadest appeal.

Second, a campaign must distribute content to influencers and audiences across the web in order to spark social sharing. While earned media is free, most campaigns spend significant dollars building social momentum.

And third, viewers must feel rewarded for sharing. People enjoy compelling stories. But it does not mean that they automatically share them. People need an incentive for sharing in larger numbers and more often. Certainly, it can be based on a sense of personal satisfaction from taking social action as in the Kony campaign, or from inspiring others as in "Giving." There is no reason why a climate campaign could not be awe-inspiring or feature a celebrity in a way that would enhance the reputation of those doing the sharing as trendsetters.

Choice video is a powerful medium by which to influence consumer beliefs on climate change. It not only has the potential to engage climate skeptics, but also to influence their beliefs, especially when the message is shared from a trusted source. This is one medium that climate campaigns — including Steyer’s super PAC — should give a chance.

Feature image by Gonzalo Aragon via Shutterstock.