Creative is inherently risky and asking a partner to step outside their comfort zone is not an easy task or one to take lightly. But when you have an important mission, trust between partners, and big goals, provocative storytelling can break through the clutter.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is a nonprofit organization that represents hundreds of medical schools, teaching hospitals and academic societies. They are known to be highly academic, credible, and professional, and take great care to ensure their communications align with this brand positioning.
So when we proposed a campaign centered around a dark graphic novel based in the future, we were entering new territory with the AAMC. They knew this was more than a flashy tactic to drive clicks—it had a strong strategic foundation and could connect with their target audience, drive action, and open up new paths for messaging a complex issue—but it was a far departure from past approaches.
At the center of it all was an unwavering dedication to digital storytelling that provokes emotion, conversation, and ultimately action. The result was the The American Doctor Shortage—a campaign designed to drive awareness, engagement, and action in the form of signatures on a petition to Congress.
We know inherently that our best work rarely happens when playing it safe, but proposing bold new ideas can be scary. To navigate this space successfully we must reduce the fear of failure and make this new territory feel comfortable, for both the internal agency team and the client.
Breakthrough creative is never a guarantee, but here are 10 ways to increase its chances:
1. Internalize big goals.
Start at the very top. Think about big picture, transformative, organizational goals. Then get down to the objectives for the specific project. This might seem like a given, but sometimes we don’t spend enough time questioning the origins of organizational and project goals—and what’s truly driving them—before we dive into the work. Remember, a list of goals is not strategy. For the AAMC, the high-level goal is to be seen as a credible resource and thought leader in the medical community. The campaign objective was to mobilize support around the doctor shortage and the importance of Graduate Medical Education, and impact the fight around GME funding on Capitol Hill. So everything (and we mean everything) had to be aligned with the project objective, while ultimately laddering up to their organizational goals.
2. Obsess about your audience.
Really know them. Take time to define their demographics and psychographics, and develop a key insight to guide the work. By definition, an insight is a universal truth that has the power to ignite change. In practice, it has the power to provoke. Think about who your audience is, what they care about, their digital habits, and their overall mindset. Where do you fit in, if at all? The insight lies in the way you can infiltrate their hearts and minds.
3. Cultivate bold ideas.
Our world is filled with a seemingly endless onslaught of information competing for our time and attention. To reach our target audience, we need bold ideas that can break through the clutter and—ultimately—move the needle. Ideas that are authentic and flexible so they can sustain long campaigns, encompass many story paths and interactions across different platforms, and morph seamlessly into something else when the time comes.
Without a strong central idea it, what do you have? A collection of loose tactics floating in a fragmented communications landscape. Sure, tactics can drive results but they will never have the impact of a truly integrated well-executed idea. Ideas can come from anywhere and anyone. Develop a creative process and space that enables you to challenge the team and move past predictable solutions and best practices to arrive at a place that feels fresh and new.
4. Make sure your story provokes.
It’s easy to create ideas that catch a person’s eye and maybe get them to click, but if there is no substance behind it, if people don’t have an emotional connection, they won’t become supporters who will advocate for you in the future. If your idea does not make people think—if it does not energize, or drive action—it’s not worth doing. But how do you know if the concept will resonate? We recommend audience testing when time and budget permit. Even if you don’t have a lot of extra time or budget, quick user tests can help inform the project in unexpected ways. Social platforms are accessible means to test ideas with your actual audience and get immediate feedback. They allow for rapid iteration and give you the ability to refine creative before the full launch.
5. Build a universe of things.
Your audience is everywhere and you need to reach them there. Never start a project by deciding that “I want to make a viral video” or “I have this great hashtag.” Use a variety of mediums and platforms: websites, mobile, videos, social media, email, PR, and online advertising. Create content for each of those that is specific to your audience. What works on one channel will not always work on another. This may sound expensive, but creating assets based on a strong central concept requires much less time and energy and has a higher ROI than a bunch of loosely connected ideas.
6. Drive meaningful action.
BSD, at its core, is a catalyst for community mobilization. Driving action is in our DNA, and a central consideration for everything we produce on behalf of our client partners. As you develop your digital story across multiple channels, pay close attention to the overall user experience and touch points for action. Do this again and again until you’re sure you’ve covered every possible user journey and accounted for action along each path. Ask yourself: is it easy to get involved? What are the distractions? How can it be simplified? Some people will be convinced right off the bat, others will need more time to explore the content. You should have action points for both of these scenarios, and more.
7. Don’t let a good idea die.
Developing a compelling digital idea is a big undertaking. There will be challenges—priorities will change, new stakeholders will come into the picture, CEOs will change their minds. This stuff just happens. Embrace it and plan for it. If you love your idea you have to be ready to fight for it. Navigating these factors is tough, and requires a great deal of balance, strategic thinking and mutual understanding. In the end, flexibility is absolutely necessary because you will need to compromise. Otherwise your big idea could remain just that—an idea.
8. Be with your team.
Having your team in the same physical location as much as possible during the critical days leading up to launch is very valuable. Set up a war room, prepare for late nights, and do whatever it takes to keep the them fed and in good spirits. With big projects things should and do change quickly—a new study comes out, Congress changes direction, a new client contact joins the team. When these things happen, you need to be nimble, iterate, and collaborate in real time because changes have ripples across a wide variety of work; video, social, email, paid media, landing page, etc. Changes don’t have to water down your work, use them to make your work stronger.
9. Trust your partners.
Putting together the right team is critical for the success of any project. Once you have that team in place, there is an element of trust that comes into play. Planning is critical, but some pieces won’t come together until the very end and getting there requires a leap of faith. Consider everyone involved in the project is there for a reason. Let the art director own the visual expression of the idea. Empower the producer to cast the right talent. Defer to the writer on messaging that will provoke the desired action. Input and approval from all project stakeholders is always going to be a requirement, especially when big budgets are involved, but the process works best when we create an environment in which people have the freedom to do what they do best.
10. Make it better.
The traditional model of working for months and putting all your eggs in one basket is over. Your work doesn’t stop when the campaign finally launches. It’s just beginning. Everything we do at BSD is built on a foundation of testing, learning and optimization. And we’re not just saying that—because everybody says that—our company was built by people who ran some of the most transformative political campaigns in American history. Everything was segmented, customized, measured, and updated in real-time. Those principles guide all of our work today, so that a campaign launch is really the beginning of our ongoing optimization process. So look at metrics across all channels, run experiments, and recommend changes. Embrace being proven wrong by data.
To keep on this theme, read Some Unbelievable Shit showcasing WaterAid’s new quiz that tests your historical knowledge of all things fecal while inspiring you to do take action around global sanitation issues.