From charity campaigns to the creation of tv shows, Mike Buonaiuto, executive director of Shape History, considers the impact of algorithms on creativity.
The charity sector’s risk-averse culture is fuelled by data-backed, tried and tested decision-making.
Picture this. You sit down to watch the latest series that’s just dropped on Netflix. It has a strong female protagonist, explores issues of identity and mental health, and each episode leaves you desperately wanting more. The writing, narrative and characters have gripped you for almost an entire day of screen time. But all of this isn’t by accident. Netflix’s suggestions are so finely tuned to your viewing preferences because the company literally creates shows based on your data.
Arguably, Netflix is a data company before it is an entertainment company. Its creativity is now dictated by spreadsheets of past viewership, trends and performance. As Cary Fukunaga, director of Netflix’s recent hit show Maniac, says: ‘The algorithm’s argument is [going to] win at the end of the day.’ Netfix’s machine learning understands that exploring issues of mental health, casting female protagonists and cliff-hanger endings are adored by its audiences.
But while Netflix goes from strength to strength, is this data-driven approach to creative thought and expression good for all industries? Could it stunt new creative ideas before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves? And how will data affect the industries where balancing risk and income have never been more prevalent?
I'm talking in particular about the charity sector – an industry that has never looked more competitive than it does today. With legacy donations from older generations falling away, and scandals and transparency issues putting the sector under scrutiny, charities must develop new ways of engaging their target audience and new ways to drive supporter action over time, with new techniques that don’t become tired.
In what should be a quest for innovation, playing it safe has become the motto on most charity marketing agendas.
And yet the sector has shifted to a risk-averse culture, stifled by shyness and modesty, and fuelled by data-backed, tried and tested decision-making. In what should be a quest for innovation, playing it safe has become the motto on most charity marketing agendas.
I see this a lot at Shape History. As a social change communications agency set up in 2015 to work exclusively with good causes, every year brings fresh challenges when justifying new forms of creativity that push against the success of previous data-driven insights. Of course, I recognise that data-driven campaign design can be positive. When charities have tested a pink or blue donate button on a fundraising email, and 90% of the test audience click the pink button, you can say with some certainty that rolling out the pink button will provide the best results.
Yes, data provides every industry with far greater understanding of how to engage target audiences. But as we look to the future, where do we draw the line? While data-led, risk-averse decision-making is important for sustained engagement, without creativity the charity sector won’t innovate – or grow – at a time when it desperately needs to.
From being a follower of a charity, to clicking ‘donate’, registering as a volunteer or becoming a long-term benefactor, charities are built on a supporter journey that changes and grows over time. This journey, like any relationship, cannot be fuelled using the same tactics, the same conversations and similar stories every time. It has to change, grow, and accurately reflect both what the audience want to engage with and what they – as human beings – need to take action on.
Mike Buonaiuto is executive director of Shape History, a social change communications agency.