Is Your Message Missing Its Call to Action?

A recent paper in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “Stop Raising Awareness Already” supports a principle I’ve long been driving home to my clients: Most messaging lacks a clear call to action.

The paper’s authors, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand, both of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, argue that raising the public’s level of awareness isn’t enough. They write that activists – and I would include corporate and association executives in the mix, too – should “craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.”

Don’t Waste Your Time and Energy

Some clients look somewhat shaken when I tell them that public information campaigns, while noble, are in many cases a colossal waste of time and resources, both human and capital. You’ve educated people. Great. Now what? How does a more informed public help your organization’s cause? Are they buying your product or contributing to your cause? Are they voting the way you want? Hmm, not so much, eh?

Next step

In their paper, Christiano and Neimand note, “Research and experience both show that we must define actionable and achievable calls to action that will lead a specific group of people to do something they haven’t done before.”

Attaining Your Business Goals

Strategic communications training is more than teaching executives to talk pretty. The ultimate aim is to help a business reach its goals and to help participants enhance their career paths. Part of reaching both of those objectives means empowering them with a clear and powerful call to action. Otherwise, they are indeed doing little more than learning to talk pretty.

What’s more, this call to action needs to be meaningful. Going forth with a limp message that just preaches to the choir does no one any good. If your motivation consists of boosting your Facebook likes or Twitter followers, you’re not persuading anyone. You’re just making yourself feel better while basking in the comfort of your private echo chamber.

A quick and dirty means of measuring support for a political candidate is to rank voters from 1 to 5. The 1s are with you no matter what; the 5s will fight you to the death. Smart campaigns all but ignore both ends of the spectrum and concentrate on the 3s – those who are sitting on the fence. So it should be with any corporate messaging campaign. Persuade those who need persuasion and who may be open to it.

Crafting Your Call to Action

What might such calls to actions involve? Consider the following forums:

As Christiano and Neimand write, one risk “that poorly devised awareness campaigns have is that they reach a different audience than the one that was intended. This might be an audience that is unsympathetic to the campaign’s goals or one that might already be convinced of its goals.”

They go on to say, “There are four essential elements to creating a successful public interest communications campaign: target your audience as narrowly as possible; create compelling messages with clear calls to action; develop a theory of change; and use the right messenger.”

The next time you caucus for a message development session or communications training workshop, make sure to put these questions on the table: What is their perspective on our position? How can we align our “asks” with their interests? What do we want our target audiences to do once they understand our stance? How can we lead them there?


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