Handmade Valentine's Day cards with a variety of pens on a table outside.

Dozens of Columbia residents and visitors stopped to decorate Valentine’s postcards for loved ones at a recent pop-up hosted by the Innovation in Focus team.

Low-lift events that can spark meaningful storytelling and community connection

Lessons learned when we invited the community to write heartfelt letters

In an effort to foster community engagement and connection, the Innovation in Focus team partnered with Vox Magazine on a multimedia story that came from a community pop-up event.

After seeing examples of moving storytelling from newsrooms like El Tímpano, where their team gathered stories at a pop-up photo booth at an open air market, we wanted to explore what it would take (time, money, planning, etc.) to create something similar with our community. We aimed to offer an activity that was fun for the community but also provided us with an opportunity to connect on a deeper level and gather stories.

We ultimately set up a table at two locations in downtown Columbia and invited residents to write letters to their loved ones, friends and even strangers in the spirit of Valentine’s Day. Then, we asked if they wanted to share a story about the recipient of their card. We mailed out more than 40 postcards and collected several stories to share.

Creating a low-lift plan

Events can take a ton of time and energy. That’s why we wanted to explore what a low lift pop-up could look like. Here are the steps we took:

  1. Pick a location: We opted for public places that didn’t require application processes or payment for tabling.
  2. Gather materials: We picked postcards, markers and other fun decorations
  3. Spread the word:  We created a sign telling folks what the event is about.
  4. The pop-up itself:
    1. We set up a table and a phone/tablet on a tripod to record stories.
    2. We asked people to create a Valentine’s postcard. And reminded them it’s free!
    3. While they decorated, we asked people if they’d be willing to share a story – on camera or audio-only — about the person they’re writing to.
    4. Ask simple questions (i.e. tell me why you want to write a postcard to this person) and record the stories. 
  5. Take the results and make it into an interactive experience
We used a tri-fold poster board to make a sign with a clear message of what we were asking people to do. We also shared QR codes to Vox Magazine’s social media.

We set up our pop-up event at Stephens Lake Park and in front of a florist in downtown Columbia. We chose to do this over two days and stayed at each location for about an hour and a half. Of course, you could also stay at one high traffic spot for longer to simplify the process.

A bonus: If you look at the calendar, and there’s a sunny and warm day in your future, take advantage of it! We likely had the most success connecting with folks at the park on a Friday afternoon because we caught people soaking up the sunshine. Still, we acknowledge newsrooms might need an inside alternative, too. If given more time, we may have arranged a pop-up inside a candy shop, cafe or brewery.

What it took: Supplies

Supplies ranging from markers and stickers to letters and stamps totaled just over $90.

To save money on supplies, use what you have! Also, we wouldn’t use glitter again – a predictable and messy mistake.

Our iPhones worked great to capture video, but we might use a camera next time. We were also glad we borrowed a real microphone that helped filter out some of the background noise at the park and on the street.

Community reaction

As we set up our pop-up event, we were met with an overwhelming positive response from individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Passersby thanked us for giving them the opportunity, calling it “great” or “truly heartwarming.” Many admitted that they had either never written a letter before or hadn’t done so in years.

Above all, this pop-up introduced us to community members with whom we might not have otherwise crossed paths.

We heard from a woman who moved to Columbia from Iran to study here. We talked to a young man who planned to hand his card directly to his father, someone he said he admired deeply. We collected stories from people sending messages to their siblings in other states, and a pair of friends who wrote to their running buddy to thank him for holding them accountable. We even heard one reminder to write a love letter to ourselves!

While some opted not to speak on camera, we were surprised by how many people we met from different backgrounds, traveling from as near as Kansas City or as far as Colorado and Albania. We also spoke with Spanish-speaking community members who showed their appreciation through a letter.

This was a great outreach opportunity. We shared the QR codes for Vox’s Instagram, Facebook and X accounts. A few people shared stories they enjoyed reading in Vox, and one person shared a story tip about a new restaurant opening.

Creating a multimedia story from the event

While Vev allowed us to create beautiful scrollytelling and interactive stories without coding, we encountered challenges in formatting and editing the story to look good on a cell phone, tablet and desktop. This process took us multiple hours since it was our first time using the tool, but we assume this learning curve will be easier next time. It was also difficult to have more than one person editing the project since that feature is limited on the free version.

Upon sharing the final project with Vox Magazine, the newsroom’s audience team shared the link on Facebook, Instagram and X/Twitter. 

Our ultimate goal, though, was not measured by social media engagement or page visits. With this event, we learned what it looks like to give people a fun, engaging incentive to connect and share their experiences or stories. And we found that this opportunity to connect with community members on a deeper level can easily be scaled no matter the size of your organization.

IIF: Innovation in Focus

Sign up for the Innovation in Focus Newsletter to get our articles, tips, guides and more in your inbox each month!

Cite this article

Lytle, Emily (2024, March 18). Low-lift events that can spark meaningful storytelling and community connection. Reynolds Journalism Institute. Retrieved from: https://journalism.missouri.edu/2024/03/low-lift-events-that-can-spark-meaningful-storytelling-and-community-connection/

Related Stories

Expand All Collapse All

Comments are closed.