In 2023, we worked with dozens of partners to develop new, innovative research to better understand how media content works, the audiences that interact with it, and the narratives and networks that grow out of those interactions. Partners used this work to design and tune their strategies for reaching people at scale on issues like racial justice, health equity, climate, immigration, public education, and more.
As we launch into the new year, we want to take a quick moment to reflect on the year that was.
In early 2023, we launched an all-new version of the Narrative Observatory—our fully interactive data tool that empowers partners to find, reach, and resonate with the right audience. At the heart of the Narrative Observatory are audience panels of 300,000+ people in the U.S., who opt in to share their media behaviors across broadcast television, streaming, desktop, mobile, and tablet. The Narrative Observatory connects this data to media content data—including television closed captions, online news text, social media posts, videos and transcripts from YouTube and TikTok, metadata, and more—allowing our partners to understand how people are engaging with social issues in media.
In conjunction with the launch of the new Narrative Observatory, we published a new health equity focused report, after 18 months of research, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and in partnership with Story Strategy Group. This project represented a significant update to our audience-narrative architecture and expanded our content testing and strategy validation capabilities, allowing us to test audience-specific effects for over 100 pieces of new content. We learned that each of our four audiences has very different narrative entry points and there is a place and potential contribution for each of them to power the different parts of the process of change.
Another interactive project had us tackling a different kind of question: how to create inclusive online communities, in game worlds and beyond? Partnering with Gutsy Media, The Wildcard Alliance, and Pop Culture Collaborative, the result was a first-of-its-kind tool for inclusive storytelling. We used more than 8 million internet queries for games, shows, seasons, series, and more to map hundreds of fandoms to our Narrative Observatory audiences and then analyzed each piece of media to identify the story settings, themes, heroes, conflicts, resolutions, and rewards that resonated with each audience’s values. The big insight: thinking about where a world, theme, or character falls on the map relative to other audiences can allow creators to play with narratives that, taken together, provide bridging opportunities between audiences.
In partnership with Earth Alliance, we also launched the new new climate wing of the Narrative Observatory. This interactive tool is intended to support a new era of climate storytelling that can push the climate conversation beyond news and politics, and in the culture. One of our big ah-ha’s early on in this research was that current climate communications has a distribution problem, with a lot of content only reaching existing supporters via news. This new resource—with in-depth climate audience profiles, tips for storytellers, and insights from dozens of real-world content tests—helps climate communicators to fill this gap by mapping out a culture-first approach to engage people organically and authentically in the media spaces they already occupy.
When Liberation Ventures needed to understand whether current narratives about reparations in the U.S. were helping or hindering Black audiences’ belief that reparations are possible, we used our data to understand where audiences were encountering this content in media and who the important messengers were, and we identified both opportunities and threats for new narrative interventions. Our research played a foundational role in their new Reparations Narrative Lab which aims to close the “hope gap” that exists between strong support for reparations among Black people in the United States, which now consistently exceeds 70%, and the 7% of those supporters who believe reparations are highly likely to occur.
In addition to the featured work above we continued dozens of collaborations with institutional philanthropy, advocacy organizations, and media publishers eager to engage in work around audience research, narrative landscaping, media behaviors, content testing, and narrative intervention strategy validation.
In addition to powering our own research practice, we continued to make data from the Narrative Observatory available to our academic research network, with partners like Paris School of Economics, Hertie School, University of Utah, and Stanford University. Researchers from University of Utah and Stanford University used this data to co-produce an upcoming paper on the relationship between local elections and local news demand in the Political Science Research and Methods (PSRM) Journal.
We were honored to present our work publicly at events produced by ITVS, Wikimedia Foundation, PBS Digital Studios, WGBH, Futures Without Violence, and more. And through new tools and resources, like a refreshed Narrative Observatory and an all-new Harmony Labs website, we sought to make work, research, and thought leadership as accessible and actionable as possible. Some examples include pieces on audience-centered advocacy, the multiverse as reality model, culture-first climate communications, and using organic media to support democratic values. If you are interested in the latest news and updates from the lab, subscribe to our email newsletter here.
We are very proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish this year with our small but mighty team. None of this would have been possible without our incredible partners and funders including Atlantic Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Pop Culture Collaborative, and more. We are excited about the work ahead and all that we can continue to accomplish with the support of you, our community. Onward, 2024!