Social impact organizations spend a lot of money year after year on awareness-creating communication. Unfortunately, these efforts do not factor-in the basic tenets of communication that lead to voluntary engagement, a change in belief, and behavioural changes. This means that the money being invested, and the work put into these communication amounts to nothing. Thus, better needs to be done because perennial challenges such as poverty, unemployment, and racism still prevail despite the tonnes of money being spent.
Social impact organizations need to move beyond creating awareness because it is expensive, laborious, and unlikely to yield any meaningful results. Awareness campaigns could either reach the wrong audience, be ineffective, cause a backlash or lead to harm (which is the worst-case scenario). We will consider each point extensively as we proceed.
The corporate world has benefited from science in its marketing efforts. However, the social impact sector has not made this transition yet. Though many social impact organizations may conduct their own research, not many have the resources to base their communications strategies on findings from published academic research. Academic works that give insight into the attention, motivation, and emotions of the public are probably the most underrated goldmines not being tapped into. Each time science was incorporated into social causes, it tended to be significantly successful. In the last few decades, we’ve seen the fight against negative social issues intensify, it can be said to mean that society is evolving naturally.
However, in reality, these changes were orchestrated by skilled communicators who applied proper communication practices that have been scientifically proven to be successful in enlisting people for causes. To make your issues gain solid traction, it is fundamental to understand your audience, what makes them invest their attention, emotion, and action.
In order to communicate your social issue effectively, it is fundamental to incorporate five (5) keys principles:
- Understand the Community: Begin by understanding your audience, this is best achieved by joining the target community, and paying attention to them to gain an understanding of how to proceed with your agenda. All communication efforts must be about the issue, and not about you or your organization. There is a popular saying that ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’, it is true. Have a mindset to genuinely work for the people, not yourself.
It is popular knowledge that people engage with information that aligns with their values and beliefs, and reject or avoid those that are not. When information is perceived as threatening to the beliefs and values of the target community, they will find a reason not to accept it. For this reason, it is important communicators step into the world of their target audience.
Communication should not be seen as dropping information on the thighs of the target community but rather as a solution, it must be with the mindset to add value to the community. To have people engage and act on a piece of information, it must resonate with what they care about and their self-perception. Research has found a correlation between conservatism and individualism, the more conservative a person or community is, the more individualist their perceptions will be.
Some conservative values include respect, protection, and preserving tradition while freedom, equity, and equality are some of the liberal values. When messages are coined to align with deeply held beliefs and values, people are more willing to change or act. People like to prove that they belong to a group by engaging in anything the group stands for. Thus, any information that is against the values and norms of the group will be disregarded.
People generally seek out information that brings the positive aspect of them to fur, everyone loves to feel good. Beginning with understanding the psyche of the target community will allow you to design campaigns that will help the people see how and where your issue aligns with their values. To make an issue gain ground towards inspiring action, first identify a group whose action can be impactful to the goals of your issue or influence others to act. Secondly, find a way to add value to the group.
Communication when crafted positively is more likely to lead to action than if negative. Many of the climate change adverts for instance show the gruesome effects of climate change whereas, they could alternatively portray how beautiful our planet would be if there was no climate change. With the former, people switch off mentally from the negative information that makes them fear or feel guilty but with the latter, people lighten up and are inspired to get the planet to what it’s supposed to be.
When people are asked to give up their habits, norms and values, they will protest in some way. You will be taken as an enemy. They will either discard the information, justify why it is wrong, or even go deeper into the unwanted behaviour. For example, if you want people to stop eating high-calorie foods, you can develop a communication strategy that explores the life of the vegan community and show how healthy they are.
Now, is there anyone who does not want to live long in good health? This approach would inspire people to be vegan, this is better than showing the dangers of eating high-calorie foods and instructing people to stop eating what they know to be good food all their lives. To the community, high-calorie food means a high energy source to do work. It would be as though one is an enemy seeking to take away what belongs to them, their culture, their values, and their tradition. A resistance or backlash is inevitable. Nobody really likes to be told what to do in this 21st century where liberalism continues to rapidly shape the world’s thinking. Thus, people have to be inspired to make their own choices.
When influencers within a given community endorse a cause, it inspires others to take action. Influencers are respected individuals or groups people trust and would listen to. The approach of inspiring others works well because people are not being asked to give up something for something, so people would be more open to sharing the new information.
- Employ the Power of Imagery: When I was in High School, I had classmates that could narrate a movie they had watched from beginning to end. They most definitely would not narrate the exact words in the movie but they could remember practically every scene and narrate in their own language, this shows the power of imagery. When we remember a dream, we are able to describe them in the images we recall and not particularly every word that must have been said in the dream.
Biologically, men are mostly visual learners while women are mostly auditory learners. Thus, the best mode of learning is one that incorporates all the senses, primarily both visual and auditory senses. As communicators in the social impact sector, it is important we bear this in mind strongly because we deal with abstract issues such as poverty, health, and unemployment. The downside to this is that people are left to deduce independently what these concepts mean, the meaning of unemployment to one may not be the same to another.
For example, the term ‘Advancement’. A person in the non-profit sector would probably think of education which involves managing relationships to encourage philanthropy; whereas, another person might think of technological advancement. It is important to communicate in descriptive language because visual language stimulates the visual and emotional parts of the brain. The audience must be able to read and hear and feel, the audience must be put in the moment.
The more vivid the description, the clearer the message would stick in the mind of the audience, that’s deep understanding. The more you understand something, the better you know what to do, right? Thus, for us to get our audience to take the action we want, we must make them understand well by making vivid descriptions. Craft messages in such a way that when your audience reads or listens, they would be able to form visual images.
- Target Emotions: The purpose of communication strategies for social causes is to make the public feel as strongly about the cause as we do. If the audience does not, they would not take any action. Targeting their emotions is a way to have them believe in the cause. Oftentimes, social impact organizations go about this the wrong way by painting sad stories or gruesome scenarios. Humans seek to increase pleasure and minimize pain and thus would respond to positivity than negativity.
I do understand that organizations want the public to feel as strongly as they do about their causes, but making people sad by trying to make them feel the sadness of the population they are seeking to support won’t do the job. It does not correlate to putting the audience in the moment, it is tantamount to pulling heartstrings to have one’s way. The audience can see through all that. People avoid information that spoils their day! Can you count the number of times you changed the TV channel or took a bathroom break right when that sad or gruesome request-for-donation commercial popped up? Also, you went from being sad to being unmoved over time, right? That’s what happens when negative information is being used as a tool for public action.
People avoid these negative commercials because it makes them feel bad, it places an obligation on them to do something they really don’t want to do, and lastly because it threatens their identity, values, and perception of the world. People just prefer to avoid, especially when they feel they can’t do anything about the problem. The unfortunate thing is that many social sector organizations still engage in this ineffective practice; however, a few are beginning to switch things up.
It is more effective to show the world what the Earth would look like if there was no famine than to show threatening and traumatic images of humans and animals dying of hunger and thirst. Automatically, people’s minds would shut down on the negative but the positive message would inspire people to work towards preserving those beautiful images they saw by fighting climate change and adopting sustainable agricultural practices.
Communications strategists should inspire feelings of awe and pride in the audience instead of feelings of sadness, fear, or guilt. Pride is a particularly powerful emotion. This is when the audience anticipates feeling heroic for participating in positive action.
- Use Stories: One of the greatest speeches I have ever listened to is Barack Obama’s November 2008 election speech, the most memorable and touching point of the speech was when he told the story of Ann Nixon Cooper (now late, died at age 107), an African-American activist who saw through the different era of America’s progress.
One thing great speakers do, from Martin Luther King Jnr to Barack Obama, is to tell stories. Stories put the reader or listener in the moment, it creates a vivid picture and gives understanding.
Telling stories is the best way to get people to care about an issue. There is a higher chance people will remember narrated information than a non-descriptive one. Stories give an issue a new perspective, get and maintain attention, eliminate or minimize objections, and allow for empathy. The brain is wired to remember stories by making us think of them long after we are read or hear them. We don’t only remember the story, the feelings from the story also get invoked.
The social sector tells a lot of stories, how climate change is ravaging the Earth, how people are dying in their numbers from starvation, and so on. However, the reason people are not really taking action is because they are arguably mostly negative stories, bad feelings are constantly being invoked in them.
Components of a Story: A story MUST have characters; a beginning, a middle, and an end; a plot, conflict, and resolution.
People anticipate how a story would unfold when listening or reading, this keeps their mind fully engaged. For an audience that is familiar with an issue, this may play out differently, so it is important to alter the structure of the story, use unusual characters and new twists to keep the audience engaged. Untrue stories travel faster than true stories because they defy popular expectations. Stories are more likely to be shared if they are strange.
To make people have a new perspective, provide details about the characters or situations they may have pre-held misconceptions. If your story is about a social issue, the context of the story should be based on the forces that shape the problem; for example, poverty or the environment that influences a specific decision.
- Craft an Effective Call to Action: Many times in the day when we surf the internet, we are confronted with many instructions to take an action. Common calls to action include “Follow us”, Register now” and “Click here”. Calls to action that are not inspiring may have people feeling insignificant. Calls to action in the social context must be very specific, clear, and inspiring. Many social impact organizations perpetually err in this regard, including top global development institutions.
For example, the calls to action in recent years to commemorate International Women’s Day (IWD) have been very vague, and uninspiring in my estimation. In 2021, it was ‘Building Back Better’. In 2022, it was ‘Break the Bias’. What do these mean? Build what back? Break what bias exactly? Any call to action that is vague and raises further questions is a poor call.
In the days of Rosa Parks’ fight against racism and segregation, the call to action was not “Stop Racism” (which is even less confusing than ‘Building Back Better’), the call to action was “Don’t Ride the Bus”, they in fact did not say ‘Boycott the Bus’ because there might be someone who does not understand what boycott means. This tells how specific and clear a call to action must be in order to get the public to act. “Don’t ride the Bus” was very clear, specific, and straight to the point, everyone whether young or old could understand and knew what to do.
To create an effective call to action, it must: i) be specific ii) the people must see how the call will bring a solution or enhance the process iii) be doable
Calls to action must be specific, must connect the people to the cause and the cause to the people, the people must be able to do what’s being asked easily. The action must be reasonable, realistic, and practical.
In conclusion, if your communication strategies are not yielding the desired outcome, it is simply because the public doesn’t care about your issue or they don’t know what to do. By adopting the five (5) key principles of effective public communication, you can get the people to care about your cause as much as you do and have them take action because they understand what is required of them and how to go about it.
Time is of the essence in the social sector and resources are always limited, so it is important to get things right from the onset. Investing in communication is worth it or what’s the essence of creating awareness without anyone supporting the cause? It‘s like being a one-man army versus the whole world. If you want to win the world over, get them to care and show them how to show it.