Marketing Lessons from “A River’s Tail”

The democratization of marketing and what it means for international development.

Roughly I am going to:

  • Introduce A River’s Tail (ART).
  • Explain what the ART team thinks of marketing.
  • Explain how marketing has become democratic.
  • Explain how and when we use money for marketing.
  • Talk about how we are applying all of this to A River’s Tail.
This used to be a fishing village in Vietnam, but most of the fish in the Mekong are gone now. So people fly kites. Photo © Luc Forysth and Lien AID.

1. Background: What is “A River’s Tail?”

A River’s Tail is a one year visual documentary of the Mekong River created by my friends Luc, Gareth, and Pablo.

Gareth Bright and Luc Forsyth with a monk they met in Vietnam. The monk had a ming vase destroyed by American bombing during the war and desperately wants the United States government to pay to fix it. Photo © Gareth Bright/Lien AID.

The short story is that accomplished photographers Luc Forsyth and Gareth Bright wanted to explore the country they live in in an alternative way so they bought a longtail fishing boat and drove it through Cambodia’s rivers for three weeks. Their first three week adventure was really fun, so they made a video and it was found by the INGO Lien AID.

Lien AID funded the trip to travel through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and China and hired me to promote A River’s Tail and other Lien AID projects. Pablo moved from France to Cambodia and is probably the best video editor in the country, so we hired him to make videos.

Lien AID provides sustainable access to clean water and sanitation for Asia’s rural poor and decided to fund ART because they wanted to give a voice to the rural poor living along the Mekong and find potential solutions to their water needs.

2. Why “A River’s Tail?”

How do you get people to care about something?

On the A River’s Tail” team we are desensitized to most imagery because as photographers we each see 50,000–100,000 images a year. We’re desensitized to typical NGO content like pictures of smiling happy kids or images of tragedy.

We don’t think that we can get you to pay attention to a year of stories that ask you to donate or that just show you damage caused by human behavior. As a result we decided to tell the story of the Mekong River from a journalistic and personal perspective and raise awareness of water issues as a side effect. We made something that we would want to read. We’ll uncover development related stories as we go along, but in the context of a bigger narrative.

We hope that by telling true stories in a visually beautiful way people we will raise organic awareness of the Mekong River without needing to bang on a drum. For a good example of this, which includes some nudity, look at Peter Beard’s Pirelli calendar for an example of raising awareness of elephants.

A few photos from A River’s Tail…

Women working in a factory that turns coconut husks into mulch in Vietnam. Photo © Gareth Bright /Lien AID.
Dock worker hauling 50kg of rice husks up from the Mekong River in Sa Dec, Vietnam. Rice husks fire a kiln to make bricks. Photo © Luc Forsyth/Lien AID
Fisherman on a boat in the South China Sea. Photo © Gareth Bright /Lien AID.
Muslim minority Cham children playing with sheets as parachutes and jumping off a hill. Near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo © Luc Forsyth/Lien AID.

3. Observation: Marketing is Just Communication

When I used to think of “marketing” or “advertising” I naturally thought of Coke, Pepsi, Samsung and Apple.

However the truth is — if you asked me to describe marketing as simply as possible — it’s just finding what you’re best at and telling that to other people. With this definition marketing is really efficient communication and can be done by anyone.

There’s a famous story from Apple, which may or may not be true, that before any product is designed they design the ads first. Amazon does the same thing: product managers have to write a press release describing their product before it gets funding.

Similarly, before your NGO does something substantial it probably makes sense to figure out how to describe it to other people. What did we do? Why does it matter? Can we communicate it in a way that makes people change their behavior?

[For A River’s Tail we are telling refreshingly honest and beautiful stories of human life on the Mekong River. The stories are designed to make people care about things they may not usually care about without beating them over the head with guilt.]

4. Trend: Marketing Got Democratic

When I was a kid I could buy a $5 classified ad in the local paper or a $200 “real” print ad with color images. There was a huge gap between the kinds of ads that normal people could access and companies or corporations could access. What’s even worse is that my $5 ad looked really bad — black and white and only text shoved in the back of the paper — the $200 ad was in color, bigger, and in a better location.

Today this is totally different. As far as Facebook and Google care $1 is $1 and they’ll take it from anyone. Printing “in color” doesn’t cost anything anymore. So today it doesn’t matter if you spend $1 or $100,000 on digital advertising — your ad is going to look the same just to a smaller audience.

What this means is that your NGO, book, or documentary project can now outbid Coke, Pepsi and Samsung for the same spots of people’s attention. You aren’t going to get a billboard in Times Square for $1 but you can get the arguably much more valuable spot underneath a picture of my niece in News Feed or after I search for “asia water problems” in Google.

The eyes of photographers and storytellers light up when I tell them that for a few dollars they can reach out and tap a few thousand people on the shoulder and ask them to listen.

5. Fact: Market Isn’t (Only) About Money

For A River’s Tail we spent the vast majority of our time planning content, website design, and engagement cycles so that people would come see our story and want to follow along. None of that involved money but it’s the most important part of our marketing.

Engagement cycles?

  1. You see A River’s Tail on Facebook, Instagram, or Medium.
  2. You navigate to the website, enjoy the stories, and want to follow along.
  3. Once you decide to follow the story (email or RSS) we treat you with insane respect and beautiful stories. We assume that our audience is as intelligent or more intelligent than we are — so we don’t dump dumb content on our audience.

Once we came up with something compelling we boosted our reach with money so that more people would see it.

Spending money is a necessary evil. The sad truth is that most free distribution is being killed by spammers and scammers. Every time someone finds a method to reach a mass audience for free that same method is exploited by other entities a hundred times over. A side effect is that paying money — small amounts of money — is the most reliable way to gather an initial audience.

We spend $5–20 promoting each story to a mixed audience of English speaking audiences interested in topics like National Geographic and local audiences in the countries we photograph. It’s about 10x cheaper per view to show ads to Vietnam, Cambodia, or Myanmar than it is to target the United States, the UK, Canada, France or Germany.

6. The Lessons from A River’s Tail

  1. People are more visually literate than they get credit for. We tested six images for Facebook “Page Like” ads and found that not only do people respond to color images and simple images but they also respond to complicated black and white images. Combined with other data we think that people enjoy being respected by a story teller.
  2. We play a long term game. So we are as tricky as necessary to get people in the door but as respectful as possible once they arrive. We’ll run a single image with a compelling caption to get a click into our article. Once you’re on the article we don’t make you click to a dozen different pages and we don’t do listiciles. We encourage people to subscribe over email (but not with a popup). The email is infrequent, may be every 2 weeks, and high quality.
  3. Part of that long term game — we found out or original website wasn’t good enough. People arrived and read the site (5+ minutes each) but all of our photographer friends told us the design didn’t match the content. So we took the whole thing offline for a month and will relaunch in July with better design. If you haven’t seen it, the Snow Fall story from The New York Times changed visual storytelling and The Journey from The Guardian is the best current example. We don’t have the budget of the Times or the Guardian, but we want to get as close as we can.
  4. We care about the hardest metrics to fake. Those are the count of returning unique visitors, average time spent per visit, the percent of visitors who subscribe to our mailing list and media mentions. We don’t look at page views. Average time spent over 4 minutes makes me happy, >3% of visitors signing up to the mailing list makes me happy. We were at 5 and a half minutes of time spent and 6% conversions before we took the site down for redesign. Unique returning visitors is just a “reach” count — best way to benchmark it is to similar projects or magazines. We hope that ART will have a bigger audience than some niche magazines when it’s halfway done.

5. We know that we can’t predict the future so we try many alternatives and see what works. When running ads we test six different images for each ad and usually find a surprise in which image gets the highest clickthrough. We do the same thing with ad text and e-mail subject lines and are again amazed. To quote my friend Mike Vernal from Facebook, “We are terrible magicians.

6. We spend 6% of our total budget on marketing (design+distribution). This is in line with most corporations who spend 6–15% of product cost on marketing. I think 6–15% is a good baseline for marketing against total project cost based on who you compete with in the corporate world.

To summarize…

We made something honest that people would normally pay attention to and use money to get more attention. We spend most of our time making sure that we are honest (our stories are from real journalists). Our four person project can outbid major corporations on a niche audience and get the same quality ads and placement — which is huge.

Presented at the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand. June 17, 2015.

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