Promoting interactions and viral distribution via immersive, physical experience, collaboration, and social media

Benjamin Petit
Mar 19 · 6 min read
#EndFGM #WomenMatter Dysturb activation in Brooklyn, NY in partnership with UNFPA. Pasted photos by Dean Bradshaw on alternative rites of passage in Kenya. February 5, 2019. ©Benjamin Petit

Here’s the test I’ve been exploring: What draws someone walking down a street to stop and engage with a piece of media — and not hurry past, assuming it’s just another billboard trying to sell them something?

A few elements are necessary to improve audience engagement towards installations of media in the public space: strong visuals grab people’s attention; context and purpose are added, thanks to overlaid captions. Even more importantly, and as any shop-front owner knows: location is key.

The attention span of passersby isn’t the same in a fast and noisy high-traffic avenue as in a smaller square or street where people spend more time. What should be our aim then? To reach the highest number of people in the high-traffic avenue who might quickly look at the paste-up photo but wouldn’t necessarily take the time to read the caption? Or to reach a fewer number in a smaller street where people would be more inclined to take the time to look and have a deeper interaction with the installations? In other words, the question is the value of quantity versus quality of the audience engagement.

During the Winter quarter at Stanford, I had multiple group meetings with other John S. Knight (JSK) Journalism Fellows as well as with experts including Lindsay Green-Barber on defining and measuring impact, Dan Sinker on organization building and designing viral immersive experiences, SF MOMA’s Chad Coerver and Claudia La Rocco on audience interaction and engagement, Sam Wineburg and Mike Caulfield on media literacy, and Dennis Scholl on art, culture and community engagement. Thanks to all these inputs, I’ve been able to reflect on the paste-up campaigns I have led with Dysturb in recent years, and brainstorm on how to better design upcoming ones.

For example, my team and I added interactive elements to our mural-sized public paste-up photos: a QR code and a SMS prompt were included alongside the caption to invite the audience get more context. When several paste-ups were installed in a small street filled with restaurants and cafes — reproducing the experience of an exhibition in a gallery or a museum — a peak of SMS prompt users was observed. Additionally, when pasting up the same visuals spread out throughout a city’s streets, as well as in schools and art galleries, the result was unambiguous: the QR codes and SMS prompts were barely used on the posters displayed in high traffic streets, whereas a peak in users was observed for the paste-ups placed in schools, in art galleries, and in streets where the paste-ups were facing a cafe or a restaurant.

Students and passersby have a deeper interaction with the installations when the surrounding space allows it. Which led me to think: how to replicate and foster deeper experiences in the public space?

#EndFGM #WomenMatter Dysturb activation at Gnocco restaurant in Manhattan, NY in partnership with UNFPA. Pasted photo by Valentin Bianchi on asylum seekers in Belgium who flee Guinea to avoid FGM. February 3, 2019. ©Benjamin Petit

#EndFGM #WomenMatter

Over the Winter quarter of the JSK Fellowship, I worked on a new chapter of Dysturb’s #WomenMatter global campaign initiated two years ago. This campaign aims at raising awareness about women rights and reexamining the agency, action, complexity, and abuse of women of various classes and backgrounds around the world.

This specific activation, entitled Female Genital Mutilation: 68 Million Girls At Risk, was produced in partnership with UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons, and it is internationally recognized as a human rights violation.

#EndFGM installation of Alexandra McNichols-Torroledo’s photograph on educating women to end female genital mutilation in Colombia, pasted in Brooklyn, NY by Dysturb co-founders Pierre Terdjman and Benjamin Petit. February 2019. ©Laurence Cornet

Dysturb’s editorial director, Laurence Cornet, joined me at Stanford and helped me source the work of 19 photographers from diverse backgrounds and designed an exhibition that opened on February 6, 2019 at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York, with its counterpart in the city’s streets. This selection covered the geographical scope of the FGM practice, too often thought to be limited to only some regions of the world. It also gave space to those who speak out to end the practice — girls, survivors, activists, educators. Thanks to the partnership with UNFPA, this pioneering intervention shed light on FGM as a violation of human rights and encouraged the international community to end this harmful practice.

To build up on Dysturb’s immersive, physical experience, I experimented with new ideas in term of audience engagement. I wanted to engage with a wider audience, bypassing online filter bubbles while reconnecting with those who don’t necessarily read the news or don’t trust it. In order to do so, and to enhance the virality of our installations on social media, I designed site-specific installations in addition to Dysturb’s usual 8 x12-foot posters. My team and I collaborated with local restaurants, cafes, clubs, and bars to install murals that would not only stay longer than on construction sites where we usually paste the posters, but also be visually more impactful by their larger size. It took us a full week to install 28 posters in total in the freezing cold of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, additionally to the exhibition inside the U.N.

#EndFGM Dysturb’s murals location in New York City

We received a lot of feedback and comments on these installations on Dysturb’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and also directly from the shops owners and their customers. These Dysturb installations were among the most documented and shared on social media by passersby and by the traditional media, consequently reaching a large secondary audience online in addition to the primary one viewing the posters in the street.

Dysturb’s Instagram Stories, an alternative news channel

More than during any of Dysturb’s previous campaigns, I collaborated with activists, social influencers, and NGOs — all engaged in ending FGM — to join forces by cross-promoting our actions, and combining our audiences. By pairing physical actions with online content, Dysturb transcends the fast pace of news cycles while initiating a conversation on the featured social issues. We use social media channels, in particular Instagram Stories, to deliver contextualized visual content in a simple, easily absorbed design.

Dysturb’s Instagram Stories audience analytics for February 2019

For this activation, community manager Kyla Woods edited visual content, mixing interviews of the participating photographers, activists and social influencers, with documentation of our installations. That way, Dysturb’s social media aimed to reach a wider, younger audience.

Here’s a link to an Instagram Story from our Dysturb event in New York (you need an Instagram account to see it in its original format; if you don’t have an account, you can also preview it here):

During the next, final quarter as a JSK Fellow, I’d like to focus further on creating visual installations that the audience would organically share on their own social media, and thus amplifying the message of our campaigns. My feeling is that the global public is craving for immersive experiences in the physical space.

An effective way to deliver news in the public space while maximizing audience engagement would be to combine all these aspects: to design site-specific immersive installations to foster viral distribution online, to display a large number of paste-up photos throughout city centers to reach a critical number of eyeballs, and to collaborate with social influencers, activists, and NGOs to spread the word both online and offline. I will continue to explore various audience engagement and impact strategies, and additionally to raising awareness, how to provide concerned citizens with ways to directly take action.


The Dysturb exhibition at the U.N. is open to the public from February 7 until March 26, 2019.
Free entrance — Mon-Sun from 9:00AM –4:45PM
United Nations Visitors’ Lobby
46th St & 1st Ave, New York, NY 10017


Benjamin Petit can be reached at bpetit@stanford.edu. Follow him on Instagram @bendophoto, Facebook @bendophoto and on Twitter @bendophoto.

More info about Dysturb: www.dysturb.com, IG @dysturb, Facebook @dysturb, Twitter @dysturbofficial; and on Benjamin Petit’s photojournalism work: www.benjaminpetit.com.

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

Benjamin Petit

Written by

Photojournalist, Dysturb co-director, JSK Journalism Fellow 2019 at Stanford, Fulbright Fellow, ICP & ENS Louis-Lumiere alumni, IG @bendophoto

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

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