Photo by hiurich granja on Unsplash
August 28, 2019

How do you let your community speak for you?

Michael Hoffman

Michael Hoffman, CEO and founder of Gather Voices, shares his perspective on how nonprofits can harness community-made video to create more engaging, honest, and diverse content. His new tool allows communications teams—large and small—to collect, manage, edit, and publish videos submitted by the communities they serve.


Sarah Durham: Welcome through The Smart Communications Podcast. This is Sarah Durham and I am live at The Nonprofit Technology Conference. And I’m here with my old friend Michael Hoffman. Hey Michael.

Michael Hoffman: Hey Sarah.

Sarah Durham: Michael is, I would describe you as a serial entrepreneur. You’re the founder of See3 and now you’ve started this incredible new business Gather Voices, which I wanted to pick your brain about today. It feels to me, Michael, that when I think about the work you’ve done, you’ve always been very prescient about the use of video and how nonprofits can leverage video in exciting ways. From back in the day, I mean, you founded See3 how many years ago?

Michael Hoffman: Almost 15. So, yeah, quite a while ago.

Sarah Durham: And in earlier iterations of See3 I recall, you were very interested in this idea of nonprofits being able to capture and generate their own footage and use their own footage. And Gather Voices feels like the future of that. So, tell us about Gather Voices. What is it? How’d you dream it up?

Michael Hoffman: Sure. Yeah. So, Gather Voices is an easy way for organizations to collect, and create, and manage, and edit, and share video. And it really came out of the work I’ve been doing for years at See3. So, when we started See3, it was at that moment when broadband became ubiquitous. And it’s like, what does that mean? Well, that meant video, right? So once we could actually stream video nicely online, we saw video come online in a big way. And See3 was all about helping organizations navigate that new world. But one of the things I’ve come to realize at an agency is that agency-produced video doesn’t scale. So See3 makes phenomenal gala event videos and highly polished things, but it doesn’t scale. So, when my clients at the agency would say, I love the one video a year you do with us, but I need video for Facebook, I need video for my website, I need video, right?

And we would give them some crazy budget to shoot and produce video, but it just doesn’t scale. And the a-ha moment for me when I created Gather Voices, was four years ago. There was a feature film at Sundance called Tangerine, and it was the first real movie in a movie theater that was shot on an iPhone. And at the same time learning about that, a client, I think it was a union, said, “We have steelworkers in five states that we want on video.” And I’m thinking, I’m working on some budget that I know they can’t afford to send camera crews around. And I’m thinking, every one of those people is walking around with a professional video camera in their pocket. How come we can’t get the content we need?

And so, we started to do some tests. Well, what happens if you just ask people to pull out their phone and make a video for you? And the answer is everything goes wrong pretty much, right? That people hold their phone the wrong way, and they say the wrong things, and their lighting’s bad, their sound’s bad. And then very practically, how do you get that video off their device? And you need a release signed. So, you need to be able to own the content and know that you can use it, which is what you would do in person.

So, the idea for Gather Voices was can we build technology that lets an organization bundle up what they want in video, and then walk the person through making the video that they want? So, that’s how it works. It lets an organization create talking points, create a time limit in a branded environment, and send essentially a link to someone. And when that person clicks on the link, the software walks them through making the video that you want, and then it delivers it right back to the organization with a release signed in a platform that enables this non video producer person at the organization to use it, to be able to add branding, to be able to trim it, to be able to add a call to action at the end, and be able to publish it.

And so, I’d be curious, Sarah, about your thoughts on this, which is most people who deal with content at any level are very comfortable with most types of content. Whether it’s blog posts, or social media posts, or whatever. But as soon as you say video, it’s like, oh, we got to get the video person, the expert, the agency, right? Like it’s a different category. And so, the vision of Gather Voices—

Sarah Durham: It’s intimidating.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah, exactly. It’s intimidating. And so, the vision of Gather Voices is to say normal people should be able to collect and create and use video like they do any other kind of content.

Sarah Durham: You know, I think one of the reasons Gather Voices feels to me like such an a-ha or such an interesting idea is that with content creation of all kinds, it’s easy to be inspired about the thing you want to make. You know, you and I were talking earlier where we’re sitting at a conference right now, and you were telling me about the ways you can produce content from an association’s point of view for your conference, for instance. So, the low hanging fruit is great idea for the content. The really hard work in content production is the process. It’s the lighting, it’s the making sure that people are on message. It’s all those little details that actually make something hold together and work. So, if I work at a nonprofit, and I have subscribed to Gather Voices or I’ve purchased a package with Gather Voices, I have the ability now to set up what I’m looking for. I can design my, do you call it a project or?

Michael Hoffman: We call them requests, and requests can be in groups. So, requests can be organized by a particular campaign or particular sub-brand or whatever. So, we give real granular ability to brand and share and manage data on the back end as well.

Sarah Durham: So, I can set up my request, and I can really control what I’m asking of my community, of my members, of my clients, of my donors, and the way that they receive it and the steps that they go through to respond to my request are designed by me. But in some ways what I’m really doing is empowering them. I’m making it easy for them to raise their hand and be my advocate. Right?

Michael Hoffman: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think one of the things that I know is that our role as marketers or communicators or fundraisers, is to empower our networks. It’s the whole idea new power, you know, the concept that it’s not all about us. It’s not all about our own ideas. It’s really about lifting up the voices of our communities. That’s where all the creativity is. That’s where the energy is. And so, what we’re trying to do is just make it easier to do that and to enable people to participate. And that’s what I think our role is. It’s less clever and more amplification. More finding those stories, being a leader to collect and engage to get that knowledge and that passion. And then to be able to amplify it in your network.

Sarah Durham: So, tell us how a small organization might use Gather Voices, and how a large organization might use Gather Voices. And I mean that less in the sense of operating budget, although I’m sure that’s a variable. But more so in terms of communications capacity.

Michael Hoffman: Right.

Sarah Durham: Like if I’m a small shop with maybe a fundraiser or one communications person running comms, versus a big organization maybe with more sophistication in terms of the way they can produce content.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. And I would say the system is designed to be used by one person can do all of it. Right? So, I think where did the difference would become is in what context do you have the opportunity to use it? So, a bigger organization is running more campaigns, more outreach. They have more, maybe longer and thoughtfully prepared email campaigns and other ways they communicate with their networks. They have more segmentation, so they know what to ask specific people. So, I think that’s where the difference comes.

What we’ve noticed is interesting is a lot of the real successes are coming when instead of just saying like, we’re going to do a new thing and we’re going to do this video thing. Saying now we can actually add video content to do things we already do to with our network. So, if you’re asking somebody to fill out a form to do a petition, to have an application, to put their name in an alumni database, you can now say, add that one minute video introduction or tell us why you’re signing this petition.

That’s really impactful, because it’s not a separate ask. You’re not creating this whole other infrastructure of communication. Somebody knows why you’re asking them already. The messaging’s already developed. So, that’s where we’re seeing the really quick successes is, what can you do now that it’s easy to collect video, where can you collect it in places you’re already communicating with your network?

Sarah Durham: So, let’s say you’re a trade association, like we’re here at the NTEN conference. How can an association use Gather Voices, or any organization that has events?

Michael Hoffman: Yeah, that’s been really interesting. We’ve seen such a great uptake of the platform around events. And it starts before the event in a couple of different ways. One is that at an event, only a few people can actually be on stage. Only a few small percentage of the people who are involved can actually participate. So, with Gather Voices, our clients are asking for the input from members or attendees in advance. So, tell us about your work. Tell us about the industry. Tell us about trends. And then they’re creating compilation videos from that content, and playing that at the conference itself.

So, if you imagine like a plenary session where there’s a thousand people or 2,000 people, or 5,000 people. And there’s two people on stage, while playing a video beforehand that’s two minutes long that shows 20 different members, makes people feel like they’re engaged and they’re involved. It becomes more of a two way conversation. It’s also a way to promote diversity, to have different voices. I’ve heard this from a bunch of associations. They’ve said, hey, our leaders, because they’ve been around a long time, are usually older. They’re usually whiter, and they’re usually male. And the practitioners in our industry, and this is true across many different industries, are more women, more people of color. And if they don’t see themselves reflected in the content, they don’t think it’s for them. Right? And they’re not going to show up, and you’re going to lose a generation of people. And so, video really makes that possible.

So, that’s a sort of before example. And we have clients who are doing things on the marketing side. So, saying you want the extra early bird rate, make a video. Tell us why you’re excited to come. And then you have all this content that you can run in front of the next group of potential attendees. Because that peer influence is much more powerful. So, you could say all day long this is a great conference, you should come. But when somebody sees a peer saying, I’m excited because this is my best networking all year long, or I get my credits here for continuing education or whatever it is. Those are the powerful messages for people.

Sarah Durham: So, walk me through what it’s like for the recipient. So, the organization makes a request, but I as somebody who might be attending a conference or it might be a member of an organization or passionate about an issue, what happens? Do I get an email? Does it pop up on my phone? Do I need to download the app? What’s the user’s experience like?

Michael Hoffman: Right. So, the request is essentially packaged up into a link, and that link can be put anywhere you communicate. So, it can be in a text message, it can be inside a form that already exists. It can be a button on the page, it can be embedded in the page. So, the idea is where you’re already communicating, you can do it. Our platform works both with apps but also with just a browser. So, for many of those requests it’s just a browser link which can work in your phone or work online. So, you click on that link, calls your camera, and then gives you the talking points, gives you the time limit, and walks you through the process. So, it’s super easy.

Sarah Durham: Makes you look like a rockstar.

Michael Hoffman: Well, it just … For the organization, it makes sure that things are not all over the place. So, generally what we’ve seen is when you say, “Send us a video,” you may get videos of wildly different lengths, wildly different qualities. You’re getting them in different formats. You’re getting YouTube links, and it’s—

Sarah Durham: It’s an editing nightmare.

Michael Hoffman: And yeah, it’s kind of a mess. And there’s just so much overhead to manage it. And that’s a big part of the value of the platform is not just about coaching the end user. It’s really about taking out all of this management overhead to make it easy to make video easy.

Sarah Durham: Awesome. So, where can a nonprofit find Gather Voices and find you?

Michael Hoffman: At Dot co. You can find us. And I’m just [email protected].

Sarah Durham: All right, Michael Hoffman. Thank you for joining me.

Michael Hoffman: Thank you.