Finding Messages That Are Persuasive and Believable

A message that is persuasive but not believable can undermine your investment in marketing or public affairs communications.


A message that is persuasive but not believable can undermine your investment in marketing or public affairs communications.

A message that is persuasive but not believable can undermine your investment in marketing or public affairs communications.Arguments can be persuasive without being believable. Good research will help you determine whether your argument is both.

The worst trap you can wander into is betting the farm on an argument that research shows is persuasive, but fails to probe deeper to see whether it is believable.

Several years ago, we conducted quantitative research to test the best arguments for a state transportation funding package. The argument that proved most persuasive was the list of transportation projects contained in the legislation to be funded. People liked knowing what the increased gas tax money would pay for.

However, probing deeper revealed that many of the people who liked the idea of a specific list of transportation projects believed that they never would be built. The list was persuasive, but they doubted the credibility of the state agency to follow through.

When the transportation funding bill went to the voters, it was soundly thrashed. Exit polling underscored the problem — a persuasive argument wasn't credible enough to carry the day.

The questions of persuasiveness and believability don't just apply to public policy issues and campaigns. They also are meaningful in a marketing context. A product feature may appeal to potential customers, but unless it convinces them to buy, it is just a nice feature — appealing, but not put-it-in-my-shopping-cart convincing.

For those who like to skimp on research, the persuasive-believable conundrum can become another excuse not to do any research. For people interested in getting a return on their investment in communications and marketing, more nuanced research that digs deeper than superficial appeal is a money-saver.

In reality, a deeper research dive isn't always a lot more expensive. It is more dependent on using a research instrument that enables more careful exploration of views. That is one of the built-in values for online research tools. You can ask more questions because people will answer them, if they get to choose the time and place to respond.

Sifting through rival messages to see which one has the most appeal is an important first step. To make sure it isn't a misstep, find out whether the appeal is real. You could be sorely disappointed if you don't.