As I work with clients to develop new organizational message platforms, the idea of messages resonating with audiences seems so obvious, it need not be mentioned. “Meet people where they are,” you’ve undoubtedly heard.
This overused concept of “resonance” is a crutch for many in the communications field – simplifying the complexity of our work to a process of simply finding out what language, concepts and themes appeal to people, and then repeating those things back to them. There are implications to this approach that are unfortunate at best, and toxic at worst.
A public opinion poll on early childhood development asked respondents to identify the most serious problems that children face. Eighty-five percent responded that “parents not paying enough attention to what’s going on in their children’s lives” was the most serious. In the same poll, nearly 80% of respondents identified parents as most responsible for making sure that families have childcare, well above employers and government.
Given this example, it can be assumed that if we were to design messaging about early childhood development to “meet the public where they are,” we would adopt messaging that reflected this individualist frame, characterizing the behavior and choices of parents as the input that shapes the development of their children. Further, if we were to develop messaging to “resonate” with the public on this issue, we would largely ignore the more systemic contributing factors that research and brain science now tell us are so important to the healthy development of young children.
Even if we were to develop messaging to appeal to this widely held public sentiment for the purposes of shifting their thinking to a more productive frame, simply having reinforced the individualist mode of thinking prevents our audiences from making that shift. We have essentially dug ourselves a deeper hole, making our problem worse before we even attend to the task of fixing it.
This is an example that can be applied to virtually any issue around which we are developing messaging. If the public regards a problem as the result of individual behavior, they are far less likely to support systemic changes to fix the problem. Therefore, if we design our messaging in such a way that reinforces this unproductive pattern of thinking, even if we do so in the name of advocating for systemic solutions, our audience is more likely to maintain the unproductive frame.
Our goal as strategic messengers is not to achieve resonance. Our goal is not merely to identify messaging that appeals to our audiences. Instead, our goal is to develop messaging that makes it more likely our audiences will behave in the way we want them to.
Here’s an example. For years, advocates for evidence-based addiction policies spent valuable resources characterizing such policies through the value of empathy. Treatment and prevention represent the right thing to do for our neighbors who are struggling with addiction. They were meeting their audience where they were: stuck in an unproductive pattern of thinking that reinforced the notion that addiction is best characterized by a set of individual human behaviors, and therefore, best treated with a greater level of care and understanding for those individuals.
But researchers at the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC that maps the public’s thinking around important social issues and identifies messaging strategies to navigate some of the most common roadblocks, discovered that messaging using empathy actually depressed support for systemic solutions to the problem. You read that right. Advocates for evidence-based addiction policies were actually deploying messaging that made it less likely people would support that very idea. Describing addiction using a more systemic frame, such as interdependence or ingenuity, had the opposite effect. When audiences were prompted to consider the problem of addiction as a condition that impacts all of us, or as a challenging problem requiring forward-thinking solutions, they were more likely to support systemic policy solutions. Why? Because the messaging allowed their brains to consider the problem from a different angle.
Had researchers at the FrameWorks Institute tested such messages for resonance, they would have yielded very different results. But when messaging is developed through the lens of the end goal – in this case, support for certain policies – the result is not only smarter, more effective messaging, but an end to messaging frames that have the opposite effect.
Traditional message testing simply measures the wrong metrics, and too many professional communicators respond to those findings inappropriately. The next time you develop messaging, think about your ultimate goal and forget about resonance. If all your messaging is designed to do is meet people where they are, then all your messaging will do is help them stay there.
Shaun Adamec is a communications professional, crisis planning expert, and recovering political operative. He is President and Founder of Adamec Communications, which helps those who seek to change the world find their voice.