How can you deliver the right message to the right audience?
What is most important, the message, the channel, or the mindset of the audience you are trying to reach? Farra Trompeter, co-director, and Ryan Gerhardt, copy director, discuss how we think about segmentation and messaging, the differences between organizational and persuasive messaging, and more.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, “How can you deliver the right message to the right audience?” You know, we think a lot about creating messaging in our work to build strong brands and campaigns for nonprofits here at Big Duck. We also start every project defining audience priorities and conducting some sort of research to understand who is in an organization’s community and what might drive them to participate. And part of developing messages is understanding who your audiences are. And I’m excited to be talking with Ryan Gerhardt in today’s conversation. Ryan recently wrote a blog post called “Delivering the right message to the right audience every time.” And we’re going to touch on some of the themes of that post today. And we’ll also be sure to link to it in the show notes at bigduck.com/insights if you’d like to give it a read or refresh it if you did actually read it when it came out a few months ago. And let me tell you a little bit more about Ryan. Ryan, he/him, is Big Duck’s copy director, and he’s also a worker-owner. He’s been on our team for four years. And before joining Big Duck, he honed his communication skills across many applications. From book publishing and writing articles for online media outlets to copywriting work in the agency world, and in-house marketing for the Nantucket Film Festival. Ryan’s actually been on the podcast a number of times before talking about developing vision, mission, and value statements, discussing how to embrace the challenges of changing your name, and also examining different structures for taglines. Ryan, welcome back.
Ryan Gerhardt: Thank you, Farra. Great to be back.
Farra Trompeter: Well, I just want to start with your blog post. I love how you started off with a multiple-choice question. I’m going to ask you that question and hear your response. So the question you posed was, “What’s most important in communications? A. the message B. the channel or vehicle delivering the message, or C. the mindset of the person receiving the message?”
Ryan Gerhardt: When I put this into the post, you might see, as you read through that there was maybe a fourth option that makes it feel like I was trying to be a little bit too clever in the writing. And there may be a little bit of that, but the real reason that I kind of set it up with a secret option D is that it’s for the reader’s own internal purposes. Sometimes when you read something like a multiple choice or a series of possible answers, your brain will want to automatically answer that. And so I thought it could be helpful for folks to see what their gut reaction is, right? Do you instantly think that the message is most important? Do you instantly think that the channel is most important? So for me, that was to kind of hopefully help readers figure out on their own where do they naturally think of.
Ryan Gerhardt: But for when we’re thinking about it at Big Duck, it’s really all of the above, right? If I had to pick one to really focus on picking messaging itself would probably be the easiest, just because as communications and marketing professionals, that’s what we have the most control over, right? What we’re saying, what we’re writing to inspire, engage audiences, create action. So the message itself is probably the easiest thing to pick as the most important. But I will say that oftentimes, as you noted in terms of figuring out who your audiences are, the mindset of the person receiving the message is just as, if not more important. In order to get them to actually take an action, it’s really going to depend where are they that day, what are they thinking about. And unfortunately, this is something that is most out of our control, right? And so that’s kind of the flip side of picking the messaging as being the most important. When we think about choosing the right channel, the right vehicles, those are meant to help optimize, right? So that we meet people when they’re in the best possible mindset. And that’s not always perfect, but that’s kind of why all three of these pieces need to work in conjunction and really come together to help you put forward the best possible message for your audience.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I know we’ll talk a little bit about this too, I mean, part of our work in this area too is not just around like where are they that day, but what are their motivations? What might they be interested in as it relates to your mission or the work that you do? What might be getting in the way? What else are they looking at? Let’s say you’re trying to figure out what the next post is on Instagram. Why are they on Instagram? What are they looking for? What are they thinking about? And that’s also something we can factor in. But one of the things that you also ask in your post, so I’m going to ask you a question again, I’m going to keep flipping your questions onto you, Ryan. When should organizations segment their messaging efforts, and when should they keep them more general or broad?
Ryan Gerhardt: You touched on this a little bit in kind of the setup there. Thinking about motivations, thinking about what’s going to be around this thing that I post? What else might they be interacting with? While the idea behind segmented messaging is relatively straightforward, it is much easier said than done. I’d say that the approach for segmented messaging is really only going to make sense if it’s clear to you, not only who your audiences are, but what are their biggest motivations? What are their biggest barriers and challenges to engagement with you? Is there any conflict across your various audience groups, right? If you have three or four different groups of really important audiences, they might not all have the same motivations and barriers. And so sometimes, you know, that’s really when segmentation comes into play. Kind of supporting all of this, you really do need to have access to quite a large amount of data and research to support your decisions, and to make sure that there is some sort of evidence to back up why you think this is a motivation or why this audience is engaging in this way.
Ryan Gerhardt: And the other piece is, if maybe you have all these things to start, you still might not need segmented messaging unless you want to track some sort of specific action kind of on the backend, right? If it’s not important for you to measure what is going to be taken in terms of their actions, in terms of their engagement, you don’t really need to be able to segment and message and figure out, here’s how we’re getting a sort of feedback on message A, here’s the feedback we’re getting on message B. You know, that just kind of becomes excess data they don’t really need. Because of this and other reasons, more general or broad messaging can typically be the best place to start for many organizations. And it’s often most helpful when you’re communicating about the organization at a high level when you’re trying to create connection between your different programs or initiatives, which is more often going to be the challenge that nonprofits are facing when you have many different programs that you need to kind of weave together and create that artificial connection in some places. And certainly when you have organizational or staff limitations in terms of time, resources, and again, this is another big challenge when it comes to nonprofit communications and marketing departments. So segmented messaging is great, but it really does take a lot of, again, research, time, resources in order to do it right and to do it effectively enough that it’s worthwhile.
Farra Trompeter: I want to come back to segmented messages in a minute, but first, a lot of times we get questions around the kind of messaging that we’re doing. And a few years ago, former senior copywriter, Lila Tublin, wrote a post about messaging describing the differences of telling your organization’s story versus making a case. And again, we’ll link to that blog post in the show notes for our listeners out there. But I’m wondering, Ryan, can you talk a little bit about the difference and perhaps the purposes of how we think about organizational messaging versus what we call persuasive messaging, or again, telling your organization’s story versus making a case or trying to convince somebody to do something?
Ryan Gerhardt: At Big Duck, typically, when we’re thinking about the organizational versus persuasive messaging question, it is very similar and related to kind of the question we started out with, which is general versus segmented messaging, right? Again, similar but not necessarily always kind of a one-to-one comparison. Oftentimes what you’ll find with organizational messaging is that it tends to naturally be more broad, and it tends to naturally be more of a general categorization of content. This is because your organization’s overarching story needs to include all these different pieces, right? It needs to include some things that might not be directly or clearly connected, which leaves it feeling a little bit more broad so that it can connect them all. This doesn’t mean that your organizational story can’t be persuasive as well, right? You know, you can certainly still use persuasive phrases, different things that you know are going to resonate with folks. It just means that frequently it ends up being a little bit more of a directly relaying information.
Ryan Gerhardt: Segmented messaging naturally kind of leans the other way a little bit, right? That’s typically going to present you the greater opportunities for using persuasive language because you are a little bit more aware of the instances in terms of audiences you’re going to be interacting with, where you’re going to be interacting with them. Your ability to segment the messaging naturally creates your ability to then focus in with a persuasive topic, a persuasive phrasing, and really resonate more with your audiences. Since persuasive messaging is all about inspiring that action or engagement, it would make sense that you really need to know a lot more about who you’re trying to influence in order to do that effectively. So it doesn’t always have to be that organizational messaging matches up with broader high level messaging, and persuasive messaging matches up with segmented, but those are going to be a little bit more of a natural pairing as you’re going through.
Farra Trompeter: And I would just say one way we also think about it is organizational messaging often comes up in branding, right? You know, when you’re looking at an organization’s “about us” page or their boilerplate and thinking about “How do we describe what we do?” And persuasive messaging is often coming up when we’re doing donor communications or recruitment communications, or you know, we helped an organization recently think about “How do you make the case for somebody to join you as a member,” whether that’s as an individual or an organization. And they often have to work together. You know, for some organizations we’ve actually done both, and one is nested within the other, or some kind of reference. So thanks for breaking that down. Now, I know, Ryan, we were touching on this earlier, that sometimes segmented messaging is just too much for some organizations, especially those with limited capacity, limited time, limited budget, limited staff. What tools or practices does an organization need to have in place to do segmentation well?
Ryan Gerhardt: So segmentation, in order to do it well, you know, we talked about the data, we talked about the research, and that’s something that you could set up today and that’s great, but you probably wouldn’t have results for a little while, right? So this is largely also going to apply to folks who maybe already have some of these things in place. But a couple of the easier tools that you can think about are just straightforward. You know, Google website analytics, if you’re using a different platform, that’s absolutely fine, but whatever your website platform analytics is, that’s going to be a great place to start. Social media analytics, which I know you can get for various platforms, but again, how deeply you get into this and the things that are available to you is certainly going to vary based on the type of accounts you have, how you already have been tracking and, and setting up your posts and all those different measurements. But beyond that, right, beyond the more web-focused technical pieces, certainly organizations can send out audience surveys. You can set up maybe a quick focus group. Calls and interview some folks who are maybe a little bit more connected to your organization, right? Folks who are very clearly in an audience group that you want to speak to, and just start to gather some insights from them. There is no kind of set benchmark of “This is the amount of research we need,” or “This is the number of folks we need to speak to” and so it kind of melts together a little bit of the science and the art of do we feel like we’ve heard from a representative sample of folks? Do we feel like we’ve heard enough overlap that we can create some sort of themes that makes sense?
Ryan Gerhardt: And then beyond that, for me, at least, the organization itself, right? Your organization, your mission probably need to have some level of range or variety in order for segmentation to make sense in the first place, right? If your organization has a very singular focus, a very singular way of kind of addressing or approaching whatever your issue area is, more likely than not, segmentation is not going to be entirely necessary, right? Because people are going to be coming to you for the same things. They’re going to be coming and supporting you for similar reasons. Where your work starts to become a little bit more expansive, or maybe you could see a scenario in which there are diverging reasons people are brought to your work, but either way, they’re still going to support you. That’s when you want to start thinking about segmentation, right? Because that’s when you’re speaking directly to either whatever that draw is, or certainly avoiding mentioning whatever the barrier is for one of the groups or the others. But I know, Farra, you’ve had a lot of experience with this as well in terms of just CRM and various databases, so I wonder what you might add to this?
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I’m also thinking as you’re talking again and coming back to that idea of mindset, like what you’re speaking about is “What is motivating that person to take action with you?” “What values do they bring?” And you might have a singular mission, but there’s so many different aspects of your work. For example, there’s health organizations who might really focus on advocacy, some might focus on research, some might focus on support for survivors dealing with that issue, some might do all of it. And what brings somebody in is different. And so I appreciate what you’re sort of naming, like are there different kind of mindsets people are coming to? But yeah, I mean, I think also what you’re speaking about is people will tell you what they care about by answers to questions, like in surveys and interviews. They’ll tell you what they care about by the actions they take, which you can see in your, you know, Google Analytics, your Facebook insights, your Meta information, whatever you see on those social media analytics. And then there’s also what you can track, as you were sort of mentioning in your database. “What is your email tool telling you?” “What is your Salesforce or whatever database or constituent relationship management or CRM system using tell you?” For example, at Big Duck, you know, sometimes we found out years ago that the best time to send our email newsletter was Wednesdays at 3:00 PM Eastern. We got the best open and clicks when we did it then. So that’s when we send out our email newsletter, we send other things out at other times. So you might even segment the kind of communication too. So segmentation can work in all different ways.
Farra Trompeter: You can also track information. If we know, okay, we’ve put Ryan in this segment and we’ve put Farra in this segment, you can track that in your database and then also see how those actions change over time. And if you do apply a more segmented approach to them, do you see differences in results? Do you see that person taking more action with you, signing alerts, becoming a volunteer, making a gift, whatever it may be. So yeah, so many different things we could talk about here, but it is time to get near to wrap things up. And I’m just wondering, Ryan, do you have any advice for how organizations should think about using their mass communications channels? You know, your email, your website, your social, in reaching multiple audiences? Is there a special approach they should take to their content? Maybe for the purpose of this question, we just think about website and Instagram as examples, but yeah, how do we use these big communications channels where we can’t say, okay, we’re going to send this email to this population and this email to this population when we’re thinking about our website, Instagram, other big tools, how should we think about segmentation and messaging?
Ryan Gerhardt: I would think back to, honestly the question you opened it up with, the question from the blog post, right? “What is most important, the message, the channel, or the mindset?” And so as copy director, it pains me to say, maybe the message isn’t the most important. And so in terms of how are you going to approach this content? There might be an urge that, yes, I need to get this Instagram post up right away. Let me just start writing something. I’ll edit it, something will come together. But really that first step, particularly when thinking about how to use your mass communications channels, if you want to reach multiple audiences, you really need to consider, do you need to have any sort of prioritization in terms of the audiences you’re reaching, right? And how you would prioritize these groups in order to figure out what is the message that we need to put out there, right? So if all things are relatively equal in terms of importance, you have three or four different really core audience groups, but you couldn’t rank one above the other, it’s likely going to be in your best interest to still stick with some of that broader messaging, potentially weaving in persuasive action language. But at that highest level, really just starting to bring people in with a message or something about you that is going to be accurate across the board. Mass communications channels are typically best for this sort of higher level messaging anyway.
Ryan Gerhardt: If however, you take this step back, you consider your audiences and you discover that maybe you would prioritize communicating with one or two groups over the others, this is where you could start to test out using some of that more targeted segmented messaging for that group, even though it is a mass communications channel. The thing to keep in mind here, however, is that there is kind of that slight risk or possibility that you could alienate some folks if that specificity doesn’t resonate, right? So you really need to weigh those pros and cons before you might attempt that. Your mass communications channels are a benefit because you’re reaching the most number of people, and that is also kind of their drawback. When you want to be specific, but you can’t because you can’t prevent the people you don’t want to see it from seeing it because it’s already out there. So again, I would say really just taking that step back, thinking about your different audience groups, and if you could kind of prioritize some above the others, but if not really leaning back into that broader messaging and recognizing that being broad isn’t necessarily bad, as long as you can, again, weave in some of those higher level persuasive actions people can take. Even maybe just weaving in something that’s a little bit more topical could also help you in terms of reaching folks in the moment. I also know that Big Duck created a resource guide to understanding and engaging your audiences better, so that could definitely be a helpful starting point as well, that I’m sure I’ll be connected to this recording.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, thank you. Well, if you’re out there and you want to learn more about segmenting your messaging, be sure to read Ryan’s blog on our website, bigduck.com/insights, where you’ll also find the transcript, and we will link to all of these things. Ryan and Ally Dommu, our director of service development, also did a webinar a few months ago about segmentation and persuasive donor communications, and we’ve got the recording of that on our website as well as a video that you can watch. So be sure to check that if this is something you’d like to learn more about. Ryan, thanks so much for being here today.
Ryan Gerhardt: Yeah, thanks Farra.