August 15, 2017

6 Tips for Telling Preservation Stories on Social Media

One of the biggest buzzwords in nonprofit digital and social media right now is storytelling. The current wisdom is that, in order to inspire people to become advocates and donors in support of our cause, we need to tell compelling stories about why our work is relevant to their lives and communities. Doing the work is not enough: we also need to tell the story of why it matters.

The good news is, storytelling is a natural fit for preservationists. We are passionate about historic places, and we love talking about why they’re interesting, beautiful, and important—and about how preservation can help them continue to be vibrant well into the future.

Social media has now been around long enough that many of us have adjusted to condensing our ideas into short posts, but a new wrinkle has emerged in the last couple of years: visual storytelling. We are now in a time where we are almost literally expecting a picture to convey a thousand words. Not sure where to start? We have some tips to help you express your dissertation-level passion for preservation in short, visual packages.

1. Develop an aesthetic.

Much like developing a voice in writing, developing an aesthetic allows you to tell your preservation story authentically and consistently. The best place to start is by looking at what others (fellow preservationists, historic sites, preservation organizations, etc.) are doing and see what will work best for you. Choose themes, filters, and a look that help you tell your preservation story. A large part of developing an aesthetic is trial and error, so don't be afraid to try something new.

A post shared by Saving Places (@savingplaces) on

2. Create Instagram galleries.

Instagram galleries function like a slideshow. You can add up to 10 photos with a single caption. They’re great to use if you have a batch of photos from a single event. At the moment, Instagram only allows square photos for galleries, but crafty use of screenshotting rectangular photos on your phone will help you get around that.

3. Go simply visual with stories.

Stories are a feature of both Instagram and Snapchat, but how to decide which to use? Consider your audience—both current and prospective. Both channels skew younger than, say, Facebook, but of the two, Snapchat definitely hits the youngest audience.

Stories are a fun way to combine still photos and short videos around a single theme or event. They’re currently the most casual format social media offers, and include fun filters, stickers, and text options—including handwriting.

Instagram stories allow you to pull images and videos taken with 24 hours from your camera roll, making it easier to create the illusion of real-time sharing without the stress of producing content as it happens. (While you can grab camera roll pictures in Snapchat, they are imported with a border that is a dead giveaway of your content’s age).

Pro tip: To give yourself time to review and curate a Snapchat story, put your phone on airplane mode while creating it. It will save your story in a queue until you’re out of airplane mode. You can’t edit snaps in this queue, but you can delete ones that don’t look or sound the way you’d like, or that in hindsight seem duplicative.

4. Reuse your stories.

Social media is not actually as ephemeral as it seems. Initially, stories on Instagram and Snapchat did disappear after 24 hours, but as it turns out, it’s not just preservationists who want to save things. Many users wanted to be able to hold onto their memories longer, so both channels added the ability to download and save. In fact, both the full story and each of its segments individually can be saved—making that content very flexible for resharing later or on other channels.

5. To go live or not to go live?

Is what you’re sharing something people will want to participate in—say, by asking questions—as it happens? Then Facebook Live, Periscope, or Instagram Live would be a good choice. Be prepared to monitor feedback as you present or get someone to assist you.

6. Hand over the reins for a day.

User-generated content can be a particularly useful tool in visual storytelling, whether you are still developing your aesthetic or have become a seasoned pro. Maybe a visitor captured an interesting Instagram photo of a site you’re working on. Regram it with an app like Repost. Maybe an influencer who follows your work is visiting one of your sites. Reach out to them about taking over your handle.

Handing over the reins is always a little nerve-wracking, but utilizing Instagram influencers—people who are known for their visual storytelling skills—is a great way to tell your preservation story while engaging a wider audience and capitalizing on someone else’s skillset.

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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