Let’s talk about crowdsourced storytelling.
The premise is simple: you throw a question or a prompt to your readers. You wait for some incredible responses to roll in, throw them all together, and voila, an instant, free story.
If you’ve ever done a crowdsourced story, you know the promise that I’ve described above is…not reality.
I’ve helped create a lot of crowdsourced feature stories over the years, and I’ve learned both from the successes and the failures of these projects. And now I want to give you my playbook if you’re ready to try one.
Step 1: Understand the big picture benefits and drawbacks of crowdsourced storytelling
Before you get started with a crowdsourced story idea, it’s important to get crystal clear on what they can do, what they can’t do, and when it makes sense to do them.
Know what crowdsourced storytelling is not
Done well, crowdsourced storytelling is rarely easy or fast — even if you craft a question quickly and end up with lots of responses from your audience!
In fact, in some cases, storytelling that relies on crowdsourced responses can be more time-consuming than a regular, reported story. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! It just means you should go in knowing what to expect.
Understand the actual benefits of crowdsourced storytelling
The real benefits of crowdsourced storytelling are nuanced.
If done well, you will hear from alumni and other members of your community who you might not otherwise have considered contacting. It can bring unexpected and delightful stories to the surface.
A good question or prompt can also offer a reason for people in your alumni or advancement offices to reach out to folks in your community that you’d like to contact.
As an example, I’ve been working on a story for a client called “Reasons to Love Grinnell.” As part of the project, we included a prompt on the back page of one issue of the magazine. We also put the request out on social media.
At one point in the process, I learned that someone in the development office used the prompt as a way to connect to an alum. The alum shared her story about the reason she loved the institution. It was a great way for that development officer to connect with the alum in a meaningful way and build on that relationship.
Step 2: Build a question that’s designed to get many strong responses
If you’re going to devote space in your print magazine to a prompt — or if you’re going to try to nab people’s attention as they scroll through their social media feeds — you want to make sure you’ve got the best possible question!
Developing a question that leads to a large number of interesting responses isn’t easy.
Here are a few ways to develop a question designed to succeed.
Do a pre-test
How do you know if you’ve got a good question? One way is to test it before you send it out into the world.
To start, create a question and then answer it yourself. Ask your colleagues to share their answers, too.
Can you think of a variety of different ways you might answer the question, or are there just one or two obvious good answers? Is it a question that seems good, but somehow only generates generic responses?
Here are a few questions that I’ve seen schools use to generate lots of feedback:
- What great concerts did you see when you were a student?
- Tell us a story about the job you worked in college.
- What advice would you offer to students today?
What makes these questions work?
They often evoke memories, strong feelings, or interesting stories. They’re also the kinds of stories that can be unique to your publication. No one else is going to ask your readers about their campus jobs or first concerts! These are meaningful questions for your readers that they may not have thought about before.
Use the question to show people what you want
In some cases, it’s fairly easy to craft a question that people will respond to with a huge variety of stories. For example, I’ve done a story for many clients about whether or not alumni changed their names when they got married (here’s one in Macalester’s magazine).
This is a topic that many people start thinking about more seriously during college, and because so much has changed over time, the generational perspectives are fascinating! In general, getting responses to this question isn’t exactly like pulling teeth, so a simple, “Did you change your name when you got married? What led you to your decision?” is sufficient.
But for other kinds of questions, it can be helpful to provide guidance about answers within the question itself. Here’s one example of a question that generated lots of feedback:
“Sometimes a place deserves a love letter as much as a person, and we want your help writing one. What are your reasons to love Grinnell? Share the very tiny (a specific snack from the JRC?) to the very large (a Grinnell pal gave me a kidney!) things that make Grinnell amazing for you.”
We worried that a more general question would generate more general responses (I loved my professors and friends), and we wanted to make sure that respondents got specific.
They did! They shared what made them proud of the school’s history, specific walking paths on campus, exact residence hall lounges they loved, and moments that epitomized the best of their college experience.
A good question often offers a handful of examples so people can see the range that is possible — and come up with answers that are uniquely their own.
Social media is a tricky animal. On the one hand, a good question can generate dozens — sometimes hundreds — of responses.
Still, someone’s gotta be the first person to respond. When you post on Facebook or Instagram, a question with zero comments can lead otherwise eager respondents to hold back.
When I’ve done stories for my own alma mater, I’ve tried to start the comments section with a relevant story or comment. When I’ve worked with clients, I sometimes asked them to do the same, or to recruit an alum who’s happy to weigh in early.
This approach can make sure you’re giving your prompt the best possible chance to succeed.
Step 3: Decide on your next steps
Hopefully, after you’ve thrown your question to your audience, responses have rolled in. Maybe the question has been as successful as you’ve hoped, maybe you’d like a few more responses, maybe it’s nothing but tumbleweeds. Now what?
Collect and — this is important — CURATE
To craft a truly meaningful story from a prompt, it’s necessary for you to be both a collector of responses and a curator of them.
When people make time to read a magazine, they want to feel like they’re getting the best of the best — not a firehose of both the good and bad responses that they could easily get in any social media comments section.
Cut the mediocre responses, edit the rambling ones, and reach out to folks whose responses need a bit more context or detail.
I know that for many of us, it’s fairly rare to hear from lots of people, so it can feel painful to leave anything at all on the cutting room floor.
While you should definitely thank people for responding, you don’t have to give every respondent space in your print magazine.
Start with the crowd, but don’t end there
As an editor, you should view the responses that you get from a request as a starting point, not an ending one.
Analyze the best responses, then think about what you’re missing: are you hearing from folks from a variety of class years? Does it truly represent the demographics of your alumni or institution?
If not, who can you reach out to in order to get a more representative response? What kinds of answers would be helpful to fill out your list, and who could you contact to get them?
For example, in this story for Macalester Today, “The Professor Who Changed My Life,” social media requests generated strong responses from alumni who shared stories about the professors who had made a lasting impact on them.
But what we needed to create a story for the magazine was additional insight from professors. We used the alumni responses as a starting point to decide which professors to contact for the story.
If you want to create a story from your prompts that truly feels like it earns the right to be in your print magazine, be as thoughtful about your sourcing as you are from a more traditional story.
Know when to fold ’em
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t collect enough responses to move forward. This is true even if you’ve asked a great question, even if you’ve tested it, and even if the exact same prompt worked for another school just like yours.
I recently worked with a client where I confidently suggested a crowdsourced story that I’d seen work at at least four other institutions. And with her institution, it flopped!
Maybe her school was just a little different. Maybe the story idea no longer felt relevant. Who knows?
Whatever the case, we got nothing but crickets when we sent the request. It happens! It was disappointing, but we both agreed it wasn’t working and we moved on. We’ll try again with another prompt in the future.
4. Craft your story
By now, you have a sense of the range and number of responses, and you can build from there. Here are some ways to think about it.
Go small but beautiful
For years, TCNJ Magazine ran a two-page spread of crowdsourced stories in each issue. It required just a few responses to work perfectly.
With a sharp intro, subheads, and thoughtful design, you can pull together a few pages of responses for a simple, easy-to-read feature, like this best advice piece for Grinnell Magazine.
Use responses as a starting point for a traditional feature
The editor got so many responses to the prompt that we also pulled together a sidebar to showcase the wide range of unique stories from alums.
Consider a themed roundup
In this piece I did for Grinnell on career changes, “The Great Awakening,” we crowdsourced the best stories and then conducted follow-up interviews with a handful of respondents.
You wouldn’t necessarily know that this was a crowdsourced story — but we couldn’t have found our sources any other way.
5. Continue the conversation
Once you’ve posted your request, collected responses, written and designed a story, and sent it out to the world, you may feel done with that project.
Yet for many alumni, the story they read in your magazine may be the first time they’ve seen anything about the topic! Your story will likely prompt many ideas, memories, and stories from your readers. Create a call to action so they can share those stories with you.
You can see that we did just that at the end of “The Great Awakening.”
If you hear from your readers, you can simply collect the responses and thank those who wrote in, or you can run some in the letters to the editor section.
The point of this last step is not necessarily to create additional stories for your magazine, but to give your readers an outlet to share their experiences and feel heard. This is one of the incredibly valuable (but often overlooked) roles of an alumni magazine.