Creating Aftershock: Part 2

With research and drafting in full flow, the next step was to decide on a suitable platform. Given our short timeframe, we were looking for one with a great feature set that wouldn’t require masses of development tweaks to get it behaving as we wanted. We played around with Aesop Story Engine, a WordPress plug-in, but eventually concluded it wasn’t up to the challenge. Firestorm and Snowfall have set the bar for the kind of quality we expect from long-form content. That means inconspicuous slide transitions, seamless background audio and video fades, tidy navigation and a natural scrolling pace.

After assessing a popular German platform, Pageflow, we decided it would be powerful enough to deliver our vision (in fact, it’s the platform Firestorm was built on). There’s a hosted provision that doesn’t break the bank, but we went down the free self-hosted route to allow ourselves ample flexibility.

Throughout these technical decisions and the writing up of the story, we were conscious of aligning our editorial and design vision with that of the DEC. So, while the developers wrangled with the mechanics of the self-hosted platform, the design and copywriting team pieced together an initial run-through of Aftershock using Adobe Premiere. We created a ten minute rough-cut video to act as a simulation of the reader’s experience – video, audio, scrolling text and all. This gave the DEC something tangible to comment on and went down a treat. It was well worth the time it took to produce, since drawing all the threads of the project together required everyone’s tight-knit collaboration, and the simulation provided us with an indispensable focal point.

By this point, the design team were flying through the archived video content, stripping out redundant audio, trimming down segments and creating background loops. We were lucky to have a rich trove to plunder but in an ideal world we would have someone planning the video content specific to this task right from the start of the appeal – especially for the loops, which are a pain to produce without advance warning (trying to read text over too short a video loop gets pretty tedious).

The text itself was subjected to a close shearing: no flashy adjectives were spared in the great thinning. The words had to be refined to make room for time-consuming video segments, so superfluous embellishments got the boot and we pared the narrative down to its real essentials. We found in the end that drop-off was highest during video playback, which might lead us to conclude that users get bored and distracted when the speed of their progress is defined by the video, rather than their own reading pace. But we’ll dwell more on that in the part three, when we look at the analytics and results of Aftershock and suggest some improvements for next time.

Creating Aftershock: Part 1

A couple of months ago, our contact at the DEC was looking for a way to mark a year since the Nepal earthquake. We’d talked a few times before about creating a Snowfall- or Firestorm-style piece of long form content to help tell the DEC’s story. We had even gone so far as to develop a prototype, so when this new project arrived we were excited to take it up. Our objective was to give supporters of the DEC deeper insight into the workings of an emergency aid mission. We wanted to recount the tragic story of the disaster and its aftermath, while providing a candid account of the successes of the relief effort and the challenges it faced.

Where to begin? We’d been involved in the Nepal appeal in 2015, supplying branded imagery and infographics for social media along with the DEC’s PayPal payments engine, as we had on earlier campaigns. So we already had a clear picture of the way the disaster unfolded – but we would need a lot more information to produce a compelling story for public consumption.

The first job was to gather as much content as we could. We scoured reports written by the DEC and independent researchers, caught up on member agencies’ work in Nepal, interviewed emergency aid workers who had met the crisis head on and those who were leading reconstruction projects, and trawled government and news sources for further insight into the recovery over the last 12 months. During frequent trips to Nepal, the DEC staff had collected a handful local people’s stories, and these proved invaluable when we began to shape the narrative.

Our story needed to bring to life the often challenging reality of disaster recovery. We had a wealth of technical information, but not many of us have the patience or inclination to read through several pages of dense statistics. Reports can be helpful for trustees or useful to researchers, but donors yearn for something more obviously human. These kinds of turgid documents abound in the charity sector: well intentioned tomes that aim to show accountability for donors’ money, but which fail completely to tell the human stories behind the pie charts and numbers.

We knew this was a story about people. In an ideal world, we would gather testimonials from the very start of an emergency response and follow them up at regular intervals afterwards. On this occasion, we didn’t have the advantage of a long run-up into the project, so we had to work with what was available. But the broader the range of stories we can gather, the less constrained becomes the writing. We’re subjected to a lot of bland, formulaic charity-speak when NGOs attempt to show the difference their donors help to make. With a long form piece of content like Aftershock, we hoped to speak to donors like adults. This meant baring all in a fashion untypical for a charity organisation, but which the DEC understood to be a valuable way to strengthen the relationship with their supporters.

Next week: design and development.