Economic impact analyses present a relatively new and unique way of looking at the complexities of a region’s spending (though the theory behind the methodology is in its golden years, the technology is barely decades old and constantly evolving). And, like most other highly academic and technical research methods, the presentation of results can tend toward the bland, less accessible side of the spectrum. But researchers are relying on a time-honored technique for helping people get excited about economic impacts—storytelling. Here, we review the storytelling tactics employed by California State University, Northridge (CSUN) to communicate the results of their economic impact study in an engaging manner.
Laying the Groundwork
California State University Northridge, in their Economic CSUN Economic and Social Impact Study, introduces the broad scope of impacts which the study plumbs in an executive summary and letter from the president. Both introductory sections mention top-level impact numbers, contributions from specific programs to the state, and how the university improves the social mobility of its students throughout their post-graduation careers. Each of these top-level numbers serve to underscore the university’s mission to create a community of learners who contribute to scholarship and creative production and innovation.
CSUN emphasizes the significance of their operating expenditures by dedicating a special section named “Economic Impact of CSUN” which details the university’s cash flow among general operations, faculty/staff, students, and visitors as distinct from a later section named “Types of Economic Impacts” which explores the additional impacts beyond the direct effects. Creating this distinction between direct effects in the earlier section and indirect, induced, and employment impacts in the later section emphasizes that how the university invests its money is as significant an expression of its mission’s priorities as are its economic impacts throughout the state of California (in the scope of the study).
Building The Story
Methodology and Detailed Inputs
CSUN itemizes its expenditures in a series of subsections to its “Economic Impact of CSUN” section early in the report. Each subsection describes how the university spends its money in various programs in terms of total investment numbers as well as in percentages of the overall budget. Including so much detail early in the report lays a foundation for later economic impact results sections which demonstrate where those programs have significant effects.
Upping the Production Value
The whole of the report is organized into pages within a microsite on CSUN’s university website. Navigation within the microsite establishes a clear hierarchy and implied chronology for the content of the study while also giving the reader a way to access parts of the study quickly, rather than having to refer to page numbers or endlessly scroll through the more commonly found online PDF. This format also makes it easy to link to and share specific sections of the study online.
Storytelling by Design
The online format also makes production faster and easier. The microsite relies on the existing branding and styling of its parent site which accelerates the design process since tables, paragraphs, titles, or charts can rely on a previously-established design vocabulary rather than having to start from scratch. This also creates significant continuity between the microsite and the rest of the university’s webpages. CSUN even capitalizes on this fluidity of design by linking microsite visitors to their previously-made donation page should readers feel so inspired as to participate monetarily in CSUN’s continued economic impact.
CSUN is quick to emphasize from the beginning that money isn’t everything. The university’s social impacts—whether quantifiable or immeasurable—are important to the fulfilling of its academic mission and worth including in its impact study.
The university emphasizes the equanimity between social and economic impacts by sandwiching the social impacts section of the report between the first and second economic impact sections. The topical shift from direct economic impacts, to social impacts, to conclude with economic impact results establishes a narrative in which the social benefits to the community are as much an outcome of CSUN’s prioritized spending as are the ultimate economic benefits to California.
Conclusion and Follow-Through
How the study helped get results
CSUN’s publicly available economic and social impact results captured much attention. The university emerged as a front runner among its 23 sister campuses (each of which conducted similar studies to examine their economic and social contributions to the state of California). CSUN was honored by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation last week as it presented CSUN with its 2015 Eddy Award, which honors leading contributors to local economy and those who create good jobs.
Folding elements of storytelling into an economic impact analysis isn’t on its own a panacea. But those who have crafted their studies using storytelling techniques have found their work to be more engaging, memorable, and shareable for their readers. Though seemingly superficial, framing the analysis within a story has proven to be a humanizing and effective way of getting legislative traction for causes, funding for programs, and interest from communities on the whole and for the better.
Hungry for more?
See how other organizations used the storytelling techniques described above as well as a few other clever tricks of their own. Click on the logos below to read more: