I can still hear in my head the refrain from one of the best TV shows of the ’90s: Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill Nye the Science Guy!
The show was a pioneer in marrying entertainment with advocacy for scientific literacy. In his iconic blue lab coat and giant red bow tie, Bill Nye was a ubiquitous force, showing kids everywhere that science could be awesome. On his way to nineteen Emmy Awards, Bill’s quirky humor and fast-paced segments exploring the science of everyday things won over audiences in schools and living rooms across the country.
But just as quickly as Bill exploded onto the scene, he seemed to vanish again at the conclusion of the show’s fifth season. When Netflix announced last August that the Science Guy would return with a new show called Bill Nye Saves the World, now-grown kids and even their parents were eager for his revival. (The show was recently renewed for a second season.) Bill Nye has always promoted scientific knowledge, but the new series revealed a more specific cause on his mind: climate change. In the first episode of Bill Nye Saves the World the meaning of the title becomes clear—to the extent that it is entertainment, this is also advocacy marketing, emphasizing the need to take serious action on climate change.
In the twenty-five odd years since Bill Nye’s Science Guy debut, we’ve managed to arrive at a point where a growing tide of anti-intellectualism, manifested with startling ignorance in the rejection of climate change science, is calling into question the future of humanity on a healthy planet. With a president who’s just withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement and who once speculated that “[t]he concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive,” now seems like the right time for some strong environmental advocates to make science a national conversation. Bill’s reappearance is timely, and the communication strategies employed in his new show offer some useful guidance for cause marketing professionals seeking to impact an increasingly divisive political, social, and economic shouting match.
Image attribution: Gage Skidmore
Bill’s new series knits storytelling and advocacy marketing into one entertaining package. Here are some key takeaways for cause marketers and content strategists.
You can have the most impressive, impactful creative campaign of the year, but if it doesn’t get distributed through the right channels then you won’t connect with your audience. Not only do brands need to choose the right platform for their audience, they also need to understand the changing ways in which their audiences are consuming media. The proliferation of platforms like Netflix reveals an appetite for convenience—people want to choose how and when they view content. Binge watching, the characteristic mode of consumption on Netflix, is a psychologically powerful habit that involves immediate reward as well as a sense of ownership. When you understand not only what platform to use but why and how to use it, you can create the kinds of stories that will stick with your audience and start a conversation.
Star power still works. We pay attention to big names and influential figures. When you combine star power with nostalgia you create a unique combination of interest and loyalty that your audience can associate with your content even before it’s aired. Bill Nye is the perfect example of a celebrity who lends this dynamic to a production. It can be an effective way to get your foot in the door if you’re a lesser-known brand or cause that can’t rely on an existing audience relationship. Influencers aren’t just traditional media celebrities these days. Social media has birthed a generation of “grassroots” influencers who often come with fiercely loyal and niche-focused followings.
Cause marketers need to recognize that long-term success lies in reaching the upcoming generations that will go on to shape the future of politics, economics, and society. While older generations may have more disposable income to donate to the causes they support, if those causes aren’t salient for younger generations by the time they’re society’s biggest earners, charities and advocacy groups will lose the financial support base they once had, particularly as competition for eyes and dollars continues to rise. Cause marketers need to begin building awareness in their future supporters as early as possible.
It’s no secret that audience attention spans are dwindling. We are so heavily bombarded with sensational content that I often find myself daydreaming about moving to a quiet little cabin in the woods and living off the land. For many people, catching up on the news entails scanning a list of 140-character headlines on Twitter. Say what you will about sacrifices in quality, but rapid-fire content is a good way to grab attention, at least initially. String together a series of short segments and you can create longer content without losing your audience halfway through. This is the characteristic style of Bill Nye Saves the World, and it’s a useful technique that many cause marketers should consider in an increasingly crowded space.
Bill Nye Saves the World is a testament to what can be achieved when advocacy intersects with strong brand storytelling. The challenge for all marketers, but particularly advocacy marketers, is in conveying a message that can stick around long enough to effect real change.
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Featured image attribution: Vlad Tchompalov