Malaria and Making a (Media) Difference

As some of you reading might have caught before, I’m transitioning from a career in environmental education and protection, to strategic communications through enrollment in the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership Program. Currently, in our Communication through Digital Media and Networks course we’re considering, to borrow a line from the course description, “what it means to communicate through the creation of compelling content, in order to build and inspire the communities and networks necessary to engage during this historic time of chaos and change.”  In succinct terms, we’re looking at new styles of communication that get people to do things.

We’ve been tasked with choosing our favorite piece of content from the term, an overtly challenging task because we’ve looked at some incredibly creative works and initiatives (we’ve also looked at a ton of memes, so I’m tempted to post my favorite kitty pic.  But that wouldn’t do justice to some of the media that truly did change my perspective on content and engagement).

Take, for example, the creative agency Wintr’s campaign they designed for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation about malaria. In the campaign, Wintr took the complex issue of malaria proliferation, prevention, medication, and associated fatalities, and used smart graphics and engaging storytelling theory to design a compelling, accessible, and impactful campaign. Not only did the campaign look good, people spread the information like mosquitos after a rainy summer. Moreso, the fact Wintr crafted something palatable for the phD set at the Gates Foundation while meeting the goals of an educational campaign directed at the general public is no small feat;  forging these types of bridges between research and application, institution and population, will continue to yield tremendous benefit.

The most memorable feature of the campaign, In addition to their stellar graphics, was the absence of any specific call to action. No donate button. No send-a-letter-to-your-senator. No way to take action on the issue except to share the information with your network, friends and family (and of course the digital friends we love, but have often never met). Wintr made sharing easy, accessible, and the only readily available course of action.

I have over 10 years of experience working in the non-profit sector, and I can confidently say the decision to not include a take action is revolutionary. The primary intent of most non-profit campaigns I’ve worked on is to directly drive users toward a specific call to action. To suggest, or even insist, the absence of a clearly visible take action, would be seen as utter mutiny.

When I prodded Wintr about this element, they simply responded, “We strongly believe having a take action section provides a method for participants to check out of an issue. From an educational perspective, we find it more successful to create engaging content and provide tools to make that content easily shareable.”  Freedom from the take action. Or rather, a vastly different way of looking at education and long-term action. Whoa.

I found Wintr’s logic around this campaign cutting edge, speaking to the changing view, primarily in the for-profit world, from Return on Investment (ROI) to Return on Engagement (ROE). This shift in perspective, away from viewing communications investment in terms of direct sales and financial conversions (ROI), into audience-building, brand awareness, and customer relations (ROE), could equally be applied to non-profit initiatives, who often view issues in terms of a series of discrete campaigns with direct results. Clearly while certain campaigns will always necessitate measuring success in terms of short-term discrete actions–fundraising, emergency relief, political campaigns, and many more–persistent issues that need a long term focus, such as reducing the prevalence of malaria and associated fatalities, will continue to require a shift of focus to long-term engagement instead of short term metrics. It’s the equivalent of changing measurement from ROI to ROE.

Their work left me excited for the potential of modern communications technology to test our existing conventions toward success in behavior change. Of course, much collaborative work needs to be done on the multiple fronts of development, technology, science, and program management for the groundwork developed by communication strategy to be successful. For now, however, in the strategy developed by WIntr, I’m claiming it’s one point for humans, zero for mosquitos.