The Ecosystem of Issues
If you are like most people, you often are asked to support one cause or another. Too often, it seems. We live in a world and at a time when we are bombarded with policy, advocacy and philanthropic opportunities. The commercial and industrial world has its own challenges with clutter and competition. A difference with issue advocacy is, while you may not think of a public cause as something with competitors, the whole environment is a competition to attract attention, mind share and finite resources.
That’s why the power of a transformative idea is so important. The essence of an issue advocacy campaign is to connect with an audience in a meaningful way, using ideas that motivate people to think, feel and act appropriately toward that issue. Each of these tasks is limiting in terms of gaining critical mass to push an issue. There are seemingly millions of issues to think about, but only so much mind space to allocate to them. There are lots of powerful emotions and values that swirl around issues, but only so much energy to invest in them. And, there are dozens of ways to engage with an issue—from writing a check, to attending a rally, to penning a letter—but many seem intimidating to potential supporters.
With our goal to trigger thought, feelings and action, there is a tremendous amount of work and opportunities for strategic cleverness in devising an effective outreach program. But the communications challenge is immensely more difficult without an idea powerful enough to motivate people to act. Organizations must build a brand, and the language of its story.
Building an issue brand
The essential elements of an issue brand-building effort are similar to what’s appropriate for a commercial brand. There are three components: targeting, contextualizing and dimensionalizing. Here are a few thoughts about each.
Targeting is about aiming your message at the right audience. Moving people to action seldom is about changing everyone’s mind. It’s about finding the specific audience most likely to engage with your issue, and to engage in the specific ways you want them to. One of the lessons we’ve learned from our work across different categories of issues is, while demographics often are a convenient starting point for framing a target audience, and they’re certainly the common currency of media planning, they run the risk of oversimplifying. Broad demographics hide individual differences.
This last election brought the term “Identity politics”—the notion that people are defined by some combination of personal characteristics such as gender, color, religion and/or lifestyle—into vogue. (See Ta-Nehisi Coates’s op-ed in The Atlantic and a TV Guide write-up on the new season of Transparent.)
However, aggregating hides individual differences, and obscures the real drivers of behavior. We recently analyzed a group of voters in the 2016 election who had changed from their prior party affiliation and previous voting patterns. We observed that individuals, many of whom shared specific personal characteristics, may have all moved in the same direction at the same time, but not as a cohesive group. Targeting them based upon group characteristics would miss the greater power of targeting them as individuals who share certain beliefs and aspirations relevant to their decision of whom to vote for.
Contextualizing is about framing an issue at the right level of detail and in the proper circumstances, and aligning it against the specific decision that we want to influence. The audience needs to relate to it. How does the issue fit into a real-life context, and how is it made personal? People may worry in an abstract sense about crime, but they focus on the issue when they wonder whether their children will be safe walking down the street. People may have similar views about education in general, but their views could easily diverge if we get more specific about early childhood education, K-12, special needs issues and so forth. One reminder of this need for clarity of context is in public issues polling, where results often vary substantially depending on how the issue is couched.
Dimensionalizing is the hardest part of building a brand around issue advocacy. It requires answering the “why” question. What motivates people to take an action in a specific situation?
The essence of this task is to deconstruct the key rational and emotional elements of motivation. We approach this by asking two questions: What are the most important tangible attributes and benefits associated with the issue? And what emotional outcomes do the target audience most often associate with those specific traits? We then plot, size and interpret the combinations of rational/emotional thought patterns related to our specific issue. This gives us insights to the alternative strategic issue framings we might choose to make our case.
A recent assignment of ours underlined one of the powerful lessons we’ve learned as we look at public policy issues. The case involved identifying the drivers of support for the public education system among North Carolina parents. Motivators showing up in our survey included giving students an opportunity to succeed in life, helping communities remain strong and viable and living up to our democratic ideals of equal opportunity for all. But the most common driver of parental support for public education turned out to revolve around feeling that they had done a good job as parents AND being recognized by their peers as being good parents. This powerful value set points to the key transformational idea that will rally parent support for a robust, well-funded public school system. We can extend this insight to a wide range of social policy issues, where we continually see that framing in terms of personal impact has a more powerful impact than framing based on a more general societal effect.
Finding the Sweet Spot
If you’re in the driver’s seat and are leading an issue advocacy campaign, conceiving and articulating the story—your brand positioning—is one of the central, and potentially most consequential, decisions you’ll make.
Motivation Research is a particularly effective tool when developing a strategic communications framework. Contact us to start a conversation on how we can use this tool to help you build or grow your issue brand.
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