Get your malaria here: storytelling on the web

In 2010 UNICEF did a guerrilla marketing campaign about dirty water. The project set up a vending machine on a crowded street in New York City.

Here’s how it worked. People walked up to the machine, put $1 in a slot and hit a button. Buttons were labeled malaria, cholera, typhoid and five other diseases. Out came a bottle of water the color of mud.

Nobody drank the muddy water. But 7,500 people stopped at the machine, and lots of them put $1 in the vending machine. The money went to clean water projects around the world.

Project sponsors filmed people’s reactions. The online video went viral, attracting worldwide media attention.

When I first started working in communications, this could never have happened. There was no worldwide web, no online videos. Nothing went viral, except for measles and chicken pox.

Today is a different world. To help navigate this world, last year I completed a Master of Communication in Digital Media at the University of Washington.

Traditional communications talks about “audiences” and “messages.” In my first class in the program, Hanson Hosein, director of the MCDM program, said the web has shifted the focus from “audience” to “community” and from “messages” to “stories.”

The internet helps people to create communities. From Facebook to Twitter, LinkedIn to Yelp, more and more people are talking to each other online. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest country in the world.

These large and varied communities can range from people joining together for Arab Spring protests to reviews of the neighborhood coffee shop, from checking in with friends and family to getting discounts from merchants.

On the web, stories are important. They engage people in what’s going on. And engaging people is key. Things like character and plot make a difference to draw people into the story.

The Dirty Water story is, at its core, about the plight of people in the Third World without access to clean water. It adds another dimension with the visceral reactions of First World people to plastic bottles of tainted brown water.

The storyline captured people’s attention on the UNICEF web site. They stayed around long enough to watch the video. And large numbers of them gave money. Donations exceeded all expectations.

What do you think of the project? Why do you think it worked?

Ed. note: In honor of my 10th anniversary in business, I am updating and reposting some of the posts from my (now-defunct) Sage Enviro blog to make it easier for people to find them.