Narrative and Ephemeral Content, and When to Use Each Type

In July, Snapchat announced a momentous change to its famously ephemeral platform. “Memories,” the company wrote on its blog, “is a new way to save Snaps and Stories on Snapchat.” If that news was enough to invite a few comparisons to Instagram, then Instagram’s new “Stories” feature, announced a month later, made those comparisons inevitable. “You can bring your story to life in new ways with text and drawing tools,” read Instagram’s announcement. “The photos and videos will disappear after 24 hours and won’t appear on your profile grid or in feed.”

By many accounts, Instagram and Snapchat were starting to resemble each other. In a story for The Atlantic—under a headline that read “Instagram and Snapchat, Sitting in a Tree”—a technology reporter wrote, “Instagram is Snapchat now—almost, kinda, sorta.”

Naturally, speculation followed. Users wondered whether the platforms would continue to move towards some center until one nullifies the other. But that speculation overlooks a few things—namely, that Instagram and Snapchat have somewhat different audiences, and offer more functions than “Stories” and “Memories.”  

For those nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations that rely on both platforms, the developments at Instagram and Snapchat are reminders that, sometimes, form matters more than platform. “The two most popular social networks for teenagers both center on the camera,” wrote the same Atlantic reporter. “Each just, so far, has constrained it differently.” Your Instagram and Snapchat audiences may be different, but you should be prepared to work within each platform’s constraints and still dazzle them.

Rather than ask ourselves whether Snapchat and Instagram will become identical twins, we asked ourselves how best to use their chief constraints—ephemeral content and narrative content. Here’s what we came up with.

When—and how—to use narrative

To explain (and not just “say”) something

“Storytelling contributes to social impact by inspiring and engaging people who can contribute ideas, energy and resources to advance a cause,” according to the Rockefeller Foundation’s “Digital Storytelling for Social Impact.” The Rockefeller report identifies five things that an organization’s stories should explain for its audience:

Before anyone invests time or energy in a new cause, they want to know how their investments will pay off. Your answer shouldn’t vanish in 24 hours; it should be a lasting resource to help you grow your audience.

To reach new people, or make a new point

There’s a lot to be said for brevity, but people need context. Once your audience becomes more familiar with your organization, then brief and fleeting messages—Instagram Stories or classic Snapchat—could be a fun way to sustain their interest. Before that can happen, you need narrative to acquaint them with your mission and build trust. “Visual storytelling makes something real, exciting, compelling and inclusive,” say the folks at Studio Bicyclette, and they should know—their boutique clothing operation became a creative consulting and advising business. “We have a tendency to want to be immersed and involved, seeing ourselves as part of the story and creating a role for ourselves within the narrative.”

To encourage sharing

Stories are meant to be shared, and so they should appeal to a wide range of people. “Every nonprofit is now a media organization,” writes J.D. Lasica on SocialBrite. “Once you have a visual story, or several, that you can draw upon, you’ll be able to begin using it in your public outreach.” The phrase “public outreach” is crucial; ephemeral content is made to vanish, after all, and so it is made with a discrete audience in mind. When your organization creates a visual story, imagine sharing that story with a complete stranger. Would she respond favorably? Does she have enough information to know why your organization matters? Would she share it with a friend?

When—and how—to be ephemeral

To just “say” something, but in a personal way

Stories build intimacy between organizations and audiences; ephemeral content can sustain it without wearing you out. Think of your relationship with your audience as a friendship: You don’t begin most conversations with close friends by reminding each other who you are. Instead, you offer a warm greeting, or offer a high-five.

People value Snapchat for its informal tone, and perhaps Instagram’s new Stories function will encourage the same informality. Rather than the tight control you need to tell your organization’s story, ephemeral content allows you to briefly reconnect in a more off-the-cuff manner. For inspiration, look to lighthearted content like Charity: Water’s Halloween Snaps, or follow some of these Snapchat accounts rounded up by Nonprofit Tech for Good. (We’re especially fond of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Orange is the New Black” series.)

To keep your audience’s attention

Stories are helpful for winning a person’s attention, but how should you sustain it? Once someone joins your organization’s audience, you don’t have to work as hard to create context for them. They remember your story and how it connects to your mission. (And, if they don’t, remember: Stories should last. Make it easy for your audience to find those videos and galleries that explain your goals again.) Instead, ask yourself how you might provoke them or entertain them or encourage their curiosity.

There’s a reason why people use ephemeral content to offer coupons or “teasers” for new campaigns or behind-the-scenes coverage of events. Exclusivity creates demand. Stories can be enjoyed again and again, and they show that your organization is thoughtful in its message. But ephemeral content is exclusive, and shows that your organization is lively and energetic. It tells your audience, “Watch this space. Something new is always on the way.”

Looking for inspiration? Snapchat didn’t invent ephemeral content, after all. Just check out Burma-Shave, whose roadside ads titillated drivers when they passed by.

When only simplicity will do

Narrative content should move from Point A to Point B. Ephemeral content, on the other hand, makes A Point. It assumes your audience’s familiarity with your work, and so it can cut straight to the point: This matters.

JustGiving highlighted a few charitable organizations that, in their words, “totally get Snapchat.” There’s inspiration aplenty here for organizations perfecting their ephemeral content strategy. A Brazilian environmental group makes 10-second videos of threatened ecosystems (fitting, then, that the videos disappear). And a branch of the World Wildlife Federation created a heartrending campaign to protect endangered animals: photos of polar bears and tigers, captioned with the phrase, “Don’t let this be my #LastSelfie.”

And while it’s great to “totally get” Instagram or Snapchat, remember this: What matters most for your organization is using the strengths of a platform to your advantage.