Your Audience Knows Best

Let your audience do the talking to come up with winning ideas, messages and strategies to public affairs challenges.Managing an issue is sometimes seen as a battle of who can talk the loudest. With the advent of social media, the winning public affairs strategy now involves who can listen the best.

Bill Lee, a consultant writing for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, recounts the experience of anti-tobacco warriors in Florida who used a variety of unsuccessful tactics to dissuade teens from smoking.

Out of despair, they called a summit on teen smoking. Some 600 Florida teenagers attended. When asked why past ads with dire warnings of the dangers of smoking had failed to work, teen attendees said they were unimpressed.

What ticked the teens off, however, was learning that they were the targets of tobacco industry marketing "to replace older customers who had died, often from lung cancer," Lee wrote. Being the next wave of victims galvanized the teens to action, as they formed Students Working Against Tobacco and encouraged chapters in schools throughout Florida.

"Despite a vicious counterattack by Big Tobacco lobbying firms," Lee said, "teen smoking in Florida dropped by nearly half between 1998 and 2007 — by far the biggest success in anti-teen-smoking in history."

This example was among others in Lee's post touting the power of peer-influenced, community-oriented marketing. Or put another way, marketing by customer engagement.

Customer relationship-building is widely acknowledged as effective in the marketing world. But public affairs professionals often look with disdain at their target audiences, let alone viewing them as the source of great ideas.

Perhaps that's why too many issues management campaigns fall flat — because key messages don't make a dent with their intended audience.

People aren't stupid, but their collective approach to issues may at first blush seem baffling. You would think pictures of people with tubes in their throats would disgust young people and discourage them from smoking. But, no, what apparently triggered their anger was knowing tobacco companies had them in their marketing crosshairs. They rebelled at that attempt at control, like kids do against their parents.

Perhaps anti-tobacco advocates should have thought of this approach, especially after the tobacco industry fought anti-smoking laws with campaigns encouraging smokers to stand up for their individual freedom. The connections people make in their minds aren't always straight lines.

Smart marketing campaigns are rooted in solid research, identifying target audiences and key messages that work for that audience. However, traditional polling only probes what comes out of the questions you ask. Directly asking your target audience to talk about a critical issue offers the promise of a more authentic approach. They tell you what works. All you have to do is facilitate them sharing that message.

Social media offers a ready-made platform for this kind of discovery and organic outreach. But it means listening instead of shouting; acting with your audience, rather than talking at it. 

Retire your megaphone and embrace your audience and its bright ideas. Your public affairs opponent will never know what hit them.