Messages that Move

Submitted on Wed, 11/7/2012 - 9:30am
To really engage audiences as activists and ambassadors, you have to equip them with a shareworthy message.

The advocacy community has gone mad for story. But stories are only as strong as the latest retelling. While compelling characters and evocative details give our stories life, it is email subject lines, tweets, Facebook posts, and headlines that give them legs.

The best stories have a clear message—or moral—that can be repeated over coffee or conveyed in 140 characters. And the messages that move tend to inspire and empower.

In today’s web 2.0 world, our supporters are the most powerful communications asset we have. Broadcast mediums are shrinking, and people are turning to social networks for information about everything from politics to human rights. But the social web is awash in content, and the only way to break through the noise is to build a chorus of voices carrying your tune.

Stories represent a vast improvement over the facts and figures we used to rely on to convince people to pay attention to our issues. Cognitive research has shown that stories circumvent our nitpicky critical brains and connect to feelings, which are the key engaging supporters as evangelists, and, ultimately, to changing hearts and minds.

However, while you might keep an audience rapt for five minutes with a riveting video about the tar sands, or a compelling first-person account of sea level rise impacts on a coastal community, supporters are unlikely to recount feature length stories to their friends around the water cooler.

To really engage audiences as activists and ambassadors, you have to equip them with a shareworthy message.

We have a recipe for creating messages that move people: values+problem+solution. It’s simple enough to work for any medium, and does three key things:

  1. Builds an emotional connection
  2. Describes a clear threat to something we care about
  3. Ends on a hopeful note

The climate community is great at describing the problem. Witness recent headlines about Arctic ice melt, rising food prices, catastrophic wildfire. We have spent the past decade describing the monumental challenge facing mankind in exhaustive detail.

And we have gotten better at connecting climate to values. Rising food prices hit our pocketbooks and dinner plates. Wildfires threaten our safety, homes and families.

This tweet from @Oxfam is a good example: #Biofuels targets increase costs of running your car, increase world #hunger, & don't help tackle #climate change ht.ly/dNm6c

It makes a strong case against biofuels—often touted as a greener alternative to fossil fuels. But it takes one solution off the table without offering another. The reader is left feeling frustrated rather than empowered.

Now consider this Facebook post from Moms Clean Air Force: America's resolve has gotten us through the most difficult times, and it will help us build a clean future! We already have the solution…RENEWABLE ENERGY! LIKE and SHARE if you believe renewable energy is our children's future!

It appeals to values like patriotism and family, and puts forth renewable energy as a solution to the challenge Moms Clean Air Force was created to address, air pollution. It gives the reader hope.

We'br seen the power of hope in campaigns ranging from marine conservation to food policy. Supporters are hit with bad news on a daily basis, and solutions are welcomed like rain on parched earth.

Consider 350.org, which has built a super active community of 210,000 Facebook fans in support of its mission to advance “the solutions that science & justice demand.” Amidst news about record-breaking drought and disappearing glaciers, it is the hopeful messages that fans tend to share.

In September, for instance, the four top posts on 350.org’s Facebook page were about the economic and environmental benefits of solar and wind power, touting them as win-win solutions. They generated more than 2,400 shares each, and nearly 3,000 likes, versus an average of 770 shares and 1,500 likes for all posts that month.

These wildly popular posts did more than just advance clean energy as a solution to the climate crisis—they outlined concrete steps to realize that potential while appealing to supporters’ can do attitude. One solar post urged fans to join the rooftop revolution, and said “Just 20 minutes. Let’s build this.” The other talked about the importance of subsidies to help America lead the world in solar, and said “change is possible.”

A problem message might get shared—we’ve all gotten the “check your cupboard for canned tomatoes with BPA in them” chain email from an aunt—but solution messages are the ones that really move people and get moved around, because they soothe our fears and fuel our aspirations.

Nicole leads the digital team at Resource Media, a nonprofit PR firm that specializes in the environment and public health. Her job is to help clients build integrated campaigns that reach and move the people that matter. While Nicole's work these days focuses on new media tools and tactics, she is old school in her approach to communications. She believes the best plans start with clear goals everyone can agree on, and a thorough understanding of audience values. In addition to planning and execution, Nicole helps clients evaluate the effectiveness of outreach efforts so they can course correct in real time. Before stepping into her current role, Nicole managed Resource Media’s California oceans program, developing an online network that includes dozens of organizations and 60,000 public supporters. She got her start in nonprofit communications at the Knowledge is Power Program and The Trust for Public Land. Find her on Twitter @nicole_amber.