Social Change  

The Back-of-the-Envelope Guide to Communications Strategy

In an article published earlier this year, we asked nonprofits to stop raising awareness, and instead focus on super-strategic communications efforts that will result in lasting change. But starting this process presents some challenges. What’s the first step? And how can you help others in your organization get on board with your more-focused direction?

When you think about a communications strategy, you may be imagining a dissertation-sized playbook that takes weeks to write. You don’t have time for that, and you have to work with a lot of moving pieces that are going to change as soon as you get the thing written anyway. Strategy should be flexible, scrappy, and accessible to everyone on your team. So what’s the busy, frustrated strategist to do?

We’re here for you with a back-of-the-envelope guide—four questions that will help you craft an effective strategy and get to the change you want to create. This will also help your colleagues become more strategic. The next time someone walks into your office insisting that it’s time to organize an anniversary gala, write a brochure, or organize a 5K race, whip out this handy four-question guide and get focused on producing something that’s going to be a lot more effective.

Ready? Let’s begin.

Question 1: What is your organization trying to make true that isn’t true now?

When we ask this question in training, we get answers like “management will be more aware of our program,” “we’ll be thought leaders in the industry,” “everyone will know about X disease.” We would also like to request a unicorn ride through Hogwarts. These goals don’t provide any strategic direction for you or your organization. So let’s erase that, pause, and think through what you really want to be different. Let’s say you’re focused on ending partner violence. Instead of raising awareness that partner violence exists, you could write draft legislation making it easier for people to get protective orders against abusive partners. Or you could conduct trainings for health workers that guide them when they observe what they suspect is abuse. Strategy requires that we get focused, specific, and deliberate.

When we work with scientists, nonprofit communicators, or program leaders, we like to play a game with them called “better goal.” We put up a goal and ask them to improve it. To craft a better goal, you need to identify what you want to change. Once you know that, you have to think about the one thing you or your organization can do that will lead that change.

Let’s play:

Goal: Raise awareness of the vulnerability of our water sources.
Better goal: Ensure that policymakers at the state level understand how regulations on watering and fertilization can protect and preserve water quality.

Goal: Increase Congressional support for science.
Better goal: Increase the number of stories members of Congress can tell about the difference scientific insight is making in their districts.

Goal: Raise awareness about partner violence.
Better goal: Work with religious organizations to provide members with training on recognizing the signs of violence and taking steps to help people affected.

Certainly the better goals we shared aren’t the only ones. We’re sure you’ve got some better ideas. But what you should take away from this exercise is that when you decide on a direction that is focused, specific, and deliberate, you are much more likely to achieve behavior change.

Here’s an example: Instead of urging residents to conserve water by sending notices about the importance of conservation along with their monthly bills, one company took a radically different approach to getting residents to use less water. When the Denver Water Company looked at residential water use, it recognized that homeowners were particularly guilty of wasting water and set a goal to reduce water use by 22 percent in 50 years. The company’s campaign tested messages and found that people did not respond to the term “conservation.” It conveyed a sense of sacrifice and was an ambiguous call to action. Exactly how much less should they use? So in 2006 Denver Water launched “Use Only What You Need,” a campaign that used humor and visual references to show people they did not need as much water as they used, and provided specific (and often hilarious) directions for fixing running toilets or watering their lawns two minutes less.

A Denver Water ad encouraged Denver residents to water their lawns less frequently.


Today, the City of Denver uses less water than in the 1970s, despite significant growth, and met that goal not in 50 years, but 10. The campaign could have identified a number of different paths, but because the company knew residents were the main culprit for water waste, it was able to focus their messages and directives. The campaign succeeded because the call to action was concrete, actionable, and didn’t interrupt residents’ day-to-day lives. They did not have to give anything up. In fact, the call to action was to use water, just less of it.

Question 2: Who has to do something they’re not doing now (or stop doing something) for you to achieve that goal?

The answer is not “everyone.” Trying to reach everyone is a waste of resources and could easily turn into your worst nightmare. Instead, we encourage you to think about your community as narrowly as possible.

We were inspired by a woman who works here at the University of Florida and who is working to get homeowners to use less water. She started out with the perspective that because she works for a public, land-grant university, she has a responsibility to communicate with all Floridians about the issue. But as she thought more about it, she realized she could make a huge—and lasting—difference by getting builders to plant landscapes around new homes that require minimal watering. That decision allowed her to focus her resources on reaching a small community of people she could easily access. More significantly, her strategy was in the builders’ interests: Instead of installing costly irrigation systems, they could install cheaper, temporary ones.

The most effective and persuasive communication is tailored to a narrow audience. And we believe your communication should provide value to that audience. You can’t do either of those things without defining and really knowing the people you want to reach. Sometimes you don’t need to speak to your choir, and reaching the skeptics takes careful messaging. Once you identify your goal, you need to identify who needs to do something different and who is in fact moveable.

Question 3: What would they believe that would motivate them to take action?

Once you know who you need to reach, you can begin the work of understanding who they are, how they see the world, and what they care about to craft a message that will bring value to them.

One of the biggest barriers to motivating people to take action is what scholars refer to as information avoidance. If you have ever avoided stepping on a scale after a vacation or left a bill unopened for weeks, you are engaging in information avoidance. There are three reasons people avoid information: It makes them feel bad, obligates them to do something they don’t want to do, or challenges their worldviews and daily routines. This is why it’s hard to communicate about climate change, for example. Telling people their activity is the main cause of global warming and that they have to change their way of life triggers the instinct to put their fingers in their ears. In an interview Ezra Markowitz, professor of environmental decision-making in the Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts Amherst, on why people avoid climate change information, said:

A lot of the [climate change] messaging that we have heard for decades now is each of us needs to take responsibility for the emissions that each of us are responsible for, from our household electricity use or driving our cars around … The implication there is that we should feel guilty about this problem. The problem is we are really good at getting out of feeling badly about ourselves, and nobody wants to feel badly about themselves. So we have a guilty bias. People are really good at trying to avoid feeling guilty. And so we downplay the issue, we downplay the fact that there are lots of victims, we kind of play up the fact that there is lots of uncertainty to get us out of feeling badly about it.

Research tells us that our social groups influence how we see the world and our values. Our cultural worldviews—preferences for an idealized form of society and perceived dangers or threats to that order—cut across two dimensions: “hierarchy – egalitarianism” and “individualism – communitarianism.” Where people fall on the matrix aligns with their beliefs, behavior, and policy preferences. These worldviews can be defined as:

  • A hierarchical worldview, defined by deference to and respect for authority
  • An egalitarian worldview, defined by distrust of social hierarchies and support for social equality
  • An individualist worldview, defined by reverence for individual self-reliance
  • A communitarian worldview, defined by valuing the good of a community over individual opportunity

In the United States, political affiliation has been found to correlate with particular values. People who are liberal tend to hold values of avoiding harm and promoting equality, while people who are conservative tend to hold values of respect for authority, protection of their social groups, and preserving the sacred. People are more likely to be open to messages, solutions, and calls to action that align with their worldviews and values.

In one study, social psychologists Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay showed conservative participants an article on a solution to climate change. One group read an article describing a regulatory solution (restricting carbon emissions); the other group read one about a market-based solution (investment in green technology). Then participants were asked whether they agreed with the climate science consensus. Conservatives were more likely to believe climate science when it was presented in a way that aligned with their worldviews of individualism and a free-market. In other words, science skepticism had less to do with the actual science, and more to do with how people saw the world around them and potential solutions.

If you show the link between science and people’s lives, they are more likely to engage with it and see it as credible. That could mean showing them the impact on their communities or how their values align with the science. Also, research suggests we need to make people feel good about themselves before asking them to hear bad information and in control over what they get to do with that information. Lastly, people are more open to information if it’s framed in a way that resonates with how they see the world, their values, and their identities. Once you have a narrow community, you can also identify influential messengers who have credibility and set norms within their social groups. Working alongside these messengers, using messages that provide value to the community, is critical for driving behavior change.

Ogilvy and Mather created a campaign that did this masterfully. Brazil faced a shortage of organ donors because of a taboo associated with donating organs to anyone other than a family member. People were dying as they waited for critical donations. The campaign targeted fans of a particular soccer club and invited them to become “immortal fans” if they became an organ donor. The result? People became donors because they associated it with being a higher-level fan. Incorporating immortality also served another purpose: Most people don’t like to think about a time when they won’t need their organs, but linking organ donation to immortality probably made the idea more palatable and lifted a common call to action to a transcendent level.

Question 4: How will you get that message in front of them?

Strategic communication is not a megaphone. People are too diverse, busy, and distracted to respond to every call to action they hear. To connect with communities, you have to go to where they are. You need to know where they spend time online and in their day-to-day lives. Tapping into routines is a must for breaking through the noise.

For example, we all remember the Ice Bucket Challenge that took over social media the summer of 2014. This campaign asked people to share videos of themselves dumping ice water on their heads and nominate their friends to either do the same or donate to the ALS Association and Motor Neurone Disease Association. Many did both. More than 28 million people participated, raising $115 million in six weeks. The organizations used the donations to fund six research programs and other investments, including the $1 million international Project MineE, which studies the connection between genetics and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Because of the investment, Project MineE was able to expand and made a research breakthrough, identifying a possible treatment for ALS.

Why was this campaign so successful? Social psychologist Sander van der Linden argues that it was because it tapped “psychological levers” that increase altruistic behavior. Social media influencers set expectations, inciting social pressure to participate, and participating made people feel good about themselves, both because they contributed to a cause and because it increased their social media “likes.” Rather than asking people to leave their daily digital routines to engage with the campaign on another website, the campaign asked people to take action within the social media platforms where they were already posting and sharing content.

Putting It All Together

We use these four questions so often that we’re thinking about getting them made into notepads. As we started training our own brains this way, it was helpful to reverse-engineer campaigns we admire. The masterful communications strategy that led to marriage equality in Ireland is a good one to practice on. Here’s how we answered the four questions for that effort, for example:

Question 1: What is your organization trying to make true that isn’t true now?

People should be able to marry the person they love, regardless of sexual orientation.

Question 2: Who has to do something they’re not doing now (or stop doing something) for you to achieve that goal?

Conservative older men have to be willing to vote in favor of the measure.

It wasn’t that they didn’t need everyone to vote to support marriage, but Brian Sheehan and his colleagues at GLAAD, who headed up the effort, did their homework and knew that the majority of young people and women were already supportive. To be sure the measure would pass, they needed this last group.

Question 3: What would they believe that would motivate them to take action?

The issue is about “marriage,” not “marriage equality,” and about familial love, not romantic love.

The first part changed the dynamic of the conversation by making the issue more universal, not something different for different groups. The second activated the parental value that no one wants to see a beloved child denied rights available to others.

Question 4: How will you get that message in front of them?

Rely on both social media to mobilize advocates and traditional media to reach more-traditional voters, and then bring the conversation offline to reach people who weren’t on social media.

The campaign worked, of course. You can watch Brian Sheehan’s overview of it here.

So grab an envelope and get to work. Play with these ideas, and work to internalize them among your colleagues. Looking at everything you do through this lens is sure to change how you think and keep your effort focused where it will have the greatest effect.
Download our four-question worksheet here under resources.

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 Ann Christiano holds the Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

This article originally appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Posted: September 22, 2017
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