Even though storytelling is as old as the hills, like almost everything these days, it is currently undergoing a digital evolution.

[imgcontainer right] [img:Jim+Lynch+TechSoup+headshot.jpg]Author Jim Lynch of TechSoup. [/imgcontainer]

Stories have long been an important way for people to define their relationships to others, shape their identity, and understand their place in their community. Stories are also an effective way for organizations, charities, and nonprofits to demonstrate to people how they strengthen communities by supporting the needs of local residents.

When a story is shared online, its power grows as the number of people who hear and engage with the story increases—as if the virality of gossip was used for good. For digital stories to really spread, they need to be more than well-told tales; they need to be crafted to appeal to online audiences.

Digital storytelling is using visuals, audio, and other media to make the story really compelling for online audiences. Stories told visually speak directly to emotions much more than text alone does, and can transform complicated topics into something that’s easier to understand and appreciate. For these and other reasons, video is expected to be the dominant form of online content by 2017.

How Can Rural Communities Use Digital Storytelling?

Communities are built and sustained though personal connections, shared experiences, mutual benefit, trust, and more. Digital storytelling can create stronger community ties and decrease feelings of isolation in rural areas by giving neighbors a way get their story heard by more people, and by a greater diversity of people, than would be possible if the story was only told face-to-face.

By putting creativity into each person’s hands, digital stories give rural residents the power to show their life experiences on their terms and in their way, which can help counteract stereotypes and misconceptions about rural living. Digital stories in particular can also increase rural access to opportunities by giving people ways to become active and engaged in causes that matter to them without having to leave their local area.

In this video by the Montana Stockbrokers Association, a nonprofit in Helena, Montana, a young rancher shares how she’s raising cattle so she can get a college degree in agriculture operations technology, and eventually bring her new learning back to her town. In less than two minutes, this video can inspire youth in other rural areas by showing them a viable career path.

YouTube video

Long-Winded Is Out. Really Short Is In.

The average attention span of an American is now shorter than that of a goldfish. So, to be successful on social media, you need to give people what they want the most: short stories told visually.

Not content with just sending a thank you note, Epicenter, a nonprofit that nurtures local businesses and ideas in the tiny town of Green River, Utah, used a short video to celebrate receiving a new grant, which in turn gets the viewer excited by their immense joy. Warning: their joy gets loud!

Where to Share Your Digital Stories

Just because you’re telling a story about a small community, that doesn’t mean the potential audience for that story is small. Social media gives your story a chance to reach an even bigger audience. Plus, if your community organization or nonprofit wants to connect with younger donors or if you’re looking for low- or no-cost approaches, these social channels are where to start.

Instagram and Vine are free mobile micro-blogging apps, both with an emphasis on video content. These apps attract the types of users that many rural communities are eager to retain: young people. The apps are heavily used by people under 35 and have massive audiences—Instagram has 200 million monthly users, and Vine 100 million.

The catch is that Instagram and Vine videos are short – really short. Instagram’s maximum is 15 seconds and Vine’s even less at 6 seconds. The apps make it very easy to create videos since they provide everything you need to shoot and edit your footage, and require no video experience. It only takes a few minutes to download the apps to your phone and try them out.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah made a fantastic Instagram video that, in just seconds, shows kids and families having fun at a fundraiser event, thanks donors and volunteers for their support, and promotes their programs and website.

If it seems that just about everyone uses YouTube, here are the staggering stats: 1 billion people visit YouTube each month and 100 hours of video are uploaded every minute. While YouTube videos can be hours long, a short video is easier to produce and can better capture the attention of distracted viewers.

Though the topic is complicated, Latino Economic Development Center uses a short video story to spread the word about its Farmers Marketing Cooperative for Latino farmers and to educate people about the way farming is changing in Minnesota.

YouTube video

Seeing Is Believing

You can tell the most stunning visual digital story, but it won’t matter if your audience isn’t able to watch it. Many rural communities face significant technology access challenges. Pew Internet reports that 20% of residents in rural areas, where access to broadband is limited, aren’t online at all.

As rural communities rally for equal access to broadband Internet, and as people increasingly go online on their smartphones, local community organizations like libraries are leading the way to help people overcome technology access challenges—and are using video to spread the word.

A rural library in Pottsboro, Texas is using video to engage its younger patrons by showing all that the local library has to offer, including games, DVDs, technology training, coffee, Wi-Fi Internet access—and oh yes, books.

YouTube video

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author’s organization, TechSoup, is sponsoring the Storymakers 2014 Contest. The contest features cash prizes for videos and photo sequences. More information is available here and via Twitter at #Storymakers2014. The contest deadline is September 26, 2014.

Jim Lynch is a staff writer for TechSoup. He writes a column and other nonprofit technology pieces for the weekly TechSoup By-The-Cup Newsletter, the TechSoup For Libraries Newsletter, and NetSquared. He’s been a nonprofit fundraiser and techie for many years with a specialty in electronics recycling and reuse. He has been interviewed extensively over the years on computer recycling and related issues by the Wall St. Journal, National Public Radio, PC World Magazine, and many other news outlets.

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