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Francesco Ungaro

#Narratives

An important part of our work prototyping the Narrative Observatory is to understand potential users, and to derive from that understanding a product strategy and sustainability model. So for a couple months this fall, we conducted 32 interviews across 22 organizations, spanning the non-profit and media sectors. Many thanks to everyone who participated!

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From these interviews, we created four user types — funder, media maker, in-house strategist, strategy consultant — each with associated jobs to be done, pains, and potential gains. Below are three headlines from our findings, followed by the product direction we think they suggest. You can also explore this more detailed synthesis of jobs, pains, and gains.

When it comes to narrative work, there is a disparity between what people say would be valuable and what they report actually spending time on.

17% of potential gains pertain to better narrative research and using narratives to identify strategic story opportunities; and 9% of potential gains pertain to being able to attribute narratives to particular media sources. However, only 8% — 10% of reported jobs focus on narrative research, identification, and tracking, and 5% on media monitoring. Therefore, a Narrative Observatory focused primarily on describing narrative ebb and flow may not see broad or rapid adoption.

Across all user types, a clear need emerged for cultural understanding of audiences, in order to develop content, target, buy media, and test effects.

43% of jobs, 22% of pains, and 26% of potential gains overall pertain to cultural audiences. Even people who considered narrative research and tracking too technically burdensome still spend time trying to understand audiences culturally, and to integrate this understanding into content development. Therefore, a Narrative Observatory with entry points focused on the cultural profiling of audiences may foster broad, rapid adoption.

When practitioners do work with narrative, they’re mostly looking for immediately actionable story opportunities; funders have different needs.

About 18% of reported narrative-related jobs overall pertain to content planning and execution. However, measurement (19%), funding (18%), and coordination (12%) pains for narrative work abound. People feel pressure to take on the burdensome cost and technical complexity of acquiring and wielding data to show narrative impact. And we repeatedly hear how narrative work lacks definitional consistency, clear metrics, and shared monitoring and evaluation frameworks. Therefore, a Narrative Observatory outputting story-based opportunity and threat analysis will be most useful and readily adopted by practitioners; while funders may find utility in supporting a narrative identification, analysis, and tracking layer that can provide a shared basis for investment coordination, monitoring, and evaluation, and reduce perceived reporting burdens among grantees.

These findings suggest a Narrative Observatory with the following capabilities or layers:

  • Audience identification and cultural profiling. Who should we be talking to? What do they care about? Where are they in media and culture?
  • Narrative discovery, measurement, tracking. What narratives are associated with our social issue and exposed to our audiences? What’s the prevalence of those narratives over time and across media types, platforms, sources, and other key dimensions? Is there a target narrative that can guide the stories we develop?
  • Ongoing story threats and opportunities. What stories engage and move audiences toward our target narrative now? What story threats need to be addressed? What hypotheses can we derive from observation or testing with regard to setting, character, tone, voice, world, or representations of past, present, and future?

And the following customers:

  • Agencies with cultural strategists helping brands and non-profits engage social issues
  • Media makers and brands developing and distributing impact-oriented content
  • Advocacy non-profits working on issues in terms of culture or narrative change
  • Foundations with issue-specific narrative and media investments

In order to appeal to practitioners — the key to broad adoption — the Narrative Observatory probably needs to foreground the audience and story opportunity layers. For most customers, the narrative layer may offer an expedient way to refer to significant story patterns vis a vis audiences or content hypotheses, but the narrative layer will not integrate well into day-to-day work, nor drive interaction with the Narrative Observatory. The only users likely to focus on the narrative layer are funders, who will interact with it like a stock index, observing how the narrative “market” moves relative to their investments. For funders with narrative change portfolios, or issue-based funder coalitions, narrative definitions, target narrative identification, and narrative modeling and measurement may serve the additional purpose of helping to coordinate between organizations and among grantees.

“The biggest challenge is information overload and underload. We need the ability to zoom out and really look at the whole media landscape rather than just the part you’re most familiar with — that’s the piece that’s most difficult.”

– Eli P., Civic Signals

This raises a conundrum. While the narrative layer is the most time and resource intensive to conceive, build and operate — and probably the most differentiating, since narrative models must be custom-built for each issue — it is the least in demand or valued by three out of four customer types.

We have received initial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to prototype a narrative layer for the issue of poverty and economic mobility in the U.S. This funding also aims to help chart a course toward market-based sustainability, as the Narrative Observatory expands to additional social issues, like climate, education reform, or immigration. But the upfront cost of developing narrative models appears out of balance with the market opportunity suggested by our research. So philanthropic investment for additional issue-specific narrative models remains a necessity, and may provide important network effects for driving Narrative Observatory adoption. Without this investment, audience and story-based feature development will take priority over narrative features, which may ultimately yield a weaker, less differentiated product.

“When you build a movement you are supposed to build on top of what’s already there. You don’t know what the long-term looks like. You’re just hitting current events and moving with the news, which is the speed of light. The long-form of how to track a movement over 10–15 years is something I see lacking in the narrative space today.”

– Rohit K., SB Digital

This suggests a revenue model where foundations trigger the Narrative Observatory to expand into a new issue by funding the development of new narrative models, plus whatever support grantees need to make full use of related audience and story insights. General per issue insight on audience, narrative, and story live online for anyone to access. And tiered subscriptions are available for custom audience work and/or ongoing reporting on story threats and opportunities.

We developed this website to support the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grantees working on poverty and economic mobility narrative change, and also to test our hypotheses about cultural audience information being the most useful entry point to the Narrative Observatory. Please have a look, play around, and, if you like, participate in our user testing by completing this survey.

“We need more concrete evidence of the impact of our narrative change work. A tool like the Narrative Observatory could contribute to that. It would be a more concrete way to capture impact that is long-term and focused.”

  • Perspective Fund

The development of the Narrative Observatory is a community undertaking, meant to serve people working on culture change. So please let us know what you think, what we got right or wrong, using this survey, so we can refine our direction and make something you actually need! You can also follow this blog or subscribe to our newsletter to stay in the loop on all things Narrative Observatory.

 


 

The full report on our user research findings is available here. This report is based on research funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Special thanks to Allie Mahler and Amanda Yogendran from Community By Design for leading user research and business planning for the Narrative Observatory.

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