Engagement Models

The Dot Connector Studio team based our Engagement Models on a decade of research into how participatory media projects connect with users and stakeholders to drive social change.


This model is designed to spread an unexpected bright idea, with a goal of widely influencing conversation. Such media projects aim to disseminate an insight or a new frame, creating opportunities for network-building and outreach. Example: Lean In. Sheryl Sandberg, an executive at Facebook, made waves with her “Lean In” TED Talk and book on how women can reach their goals in the workplace and beyond. The idea that women can have it all had ample critics, but sparked a national conversation about equality for women in the workplace and strategies for mutual support.


Big Bang

This model is designed to generate awareness, to reach as much of the targeted audience as possible. Often, such media projects will include an explosive event or coordinated launch. Example: Half the Sky. Award-winning journalists Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas D. Kristof created a splash with their campaign to end the oppression of women and girls on a global scale. Their cross-platform movement includes a best-selling book, television series, Facebook game, mobile games, partnership with PBS and ongoing public engagement campaign.


Bridge Builder


Bridge Builder

This model is designed to open dialogue across users who havediffering opinions. Such media projects create new pathways for debate and exchange between communities that don’t typically interact with one another. Example: iSeeChange. iSeeChange is an online platform and app that empowers ordinary citizens to track changes in their local environments. The project is designed to engage both climate change believers and skeptics by centering coverage on lived observation. Observations are synced with weather and climate change data for analysis. In partnership with NASA, participants also help to pair relevant observations with data from orbiting satellites. Civic organizations and journalists can tap into data to support social action or story ideas.



This model is designed to engage and hold the attention of users, generating empathy and loyalty. Such media projects aim to transport users into another place or state of mind, and are often more interactive than participatory. Example: SPENT. The interactive web game SPENT challenges users to survive for one month on $1,000. Users must make difficult decisions, such as whether to send a sick child to school or stay home from work and lose money or a job. Designed to build empathy with families in poverty, SPENT was produced in partnership with the Urban Ministries of Durham.



This model is designed to fund a project through small-scale contributions from individuals. Contributors typically receive rewards or perks based on the amount and become a core part of a project’s audience or network for future outreach. Example: Radiotopia. In 2014, the PRX project Radiotopia set a crowdfunding record, surpassing a $250,000 goal to raise over $620,000 on Kickstarter. The radio and podcasting collective became the most-funded campaign in two categories on the crowdfunding platform. Their success was attributed to a personalized community-building approach and strong emotional appeal.



This model is designed to use the public as the source of ideas and information for the content of a project. Individuals make suggestions for topics of investigation, answer questions or surveys, and sometimes participate in the storytelling or project development. Example: The Listening Post. A public media effort designed to deepen engagement with the local community, The Listening Post encourages participants to share their ideas, concerns, opinions and information through a range of platforms including recording devices and mobile phones. Community members may encounter a journalist in person, an affixed recording device, or a sign with instructions.      


Domino EffectDomino Effect

This model is designed to move influencers to action. Such media projects don’t need to reach a large audience, but rather mobilize users to interact with a target as part of a series of steps towards reaching a goal or shifting a debate. Example: Blackfish. Three years after the premiere of the documentary Blackfish, about the mistreatment of captive orcas, SeaWorld announced it will discontinue its orca breeding program and orca performances. An ecosystem of activists already concerned about the issue were able to capitalize on the effectiveness of the film to raise awareness and engage in a sustained public campaign that, bit-by-bit, caused SeaWorld stock prices to plummet, ultimately prompting the change.


Empathy GeneratorEmpathy Generator

This model is designed to introduce a new perspective or inspire action by emphasizing the human experience. These projects typically incorporate deeply personal stories that illuminate how individual lives are affected by a larger issue. Example: Clouds Over Sidra. In the first film shot in virtual reality for the United Nations, 12-year-old Sidra guides viewers through the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Commissioned for advocacy to the leaders at the Davos World Economic Forum, the first-person perspective and experimental use of VR are designed to build empathy for the vulnerability and future of refugees.


Fan ClubFan Club

This model is centered on a personality, group or brand with a goal of increasing visibility and growing the base. Users of such media projects may connect with one another, but most often communication moves from the hub to the periphery. Example: Happy Hippies. Celebrity and musician Miley Cyrus uses her public appearances to raise awareness and support for vulnerable populations, in particular homeless and LGTBQ youth. She launched the Happy Hippie Foundation to raise money and develop programs, and is outspoken on LGTBQ rights and gender fluidity.



This model is designed to reveal publicly relevant information, often as the result of in-depth investigative research. The element of surprise enforces accountability on the part of public figures or entities who might be implicated in wrongdoing. Example: Panama Papers. In 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in partnership with the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other media outlets, released a deluge of evidence critical of international political leaders, billionaires and celebrities. The painstaking research exposed scandals related to offshore holdings managed by a powerful law firm in Panama.


Invention EngineInvention Engine

This model is designed to stimulate and harness the creativity of users and collaborators. Highly participatory, such media projects serve as perpetual motion machines, constantly engaging new creators and platforms to expand the shape and reach of the project. Example: Curious City. With support from AIR, public radio station WBEZ of Chicago launched Curious City to harness the creativity of its listeners. Journalists solicit public input on topics and questions to investigate. Participants vote on the issues they want the station to pursue, and can join journalists in reporting the stories. The project—now renamed Hearken—has been adopted by newsrooms across the country, and provides an opportunity to not just broaden coverage, but for reporters to experiment with different media and storytelling forms.


Networked HubNetworked Hub

Rather than simply seeking to expand audience size, this model focuses on user engagement and mobilization. Such media projects are designed to intensify connections among users, outlets and related organizations around a particular topic, issue or identity. Example: Not In Our Town. Not In Our Town is a cross-platform initiative that has built a movement to combat hate, bullying, related crimes and make cities and local communities safer for all residents. Starting with a PBS broadcast documentary in 1995 about the community response to a hate crime in Billings, Montana, Not In Our Town has grown into a national platform with resources for organizing and building networks using ongoing production of short films, curriculum and more.


Safe SpaceSafe Space

This model provides content relevant to a targeted community, along with a managed forum that allows users to communicate privately. Such media projects allow members to cohere around a shared issue or identity and hash out internal differences without fear of criticism from outsiders. Example: The Bully Project. The widely distributed documentary film Bully raised the profile of the epidemic of bullying in schools and beyond. Hitting a public nerve, the Bully Project capitalized on momentum of the film to build a movement anchored in collecting pledges to stop bullying, which exploded in popularity. Critically, the website provides an avenue for kids experiencing bullying to get support immediately via a hotline, along with other resources that address different types of bullying.


You Are HereYou Are Here

This model is designed to build local community and intensify experiences around shared spaces and concerns. Such media projects have a clearly defined geographic focus, and aim to thicken the relationship between community members and local institutions. Example: Sandy Storyline. A participatory documentary, Sandy Storyline emerged in response to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Organized by location, residents, citizen journalists and professional media makers contributed audio, video, photography and writing to build a picture of the crisis and rebuilding on the Northeastern coast of the United States.