Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash
March 20, 2024

How can you raise awareness and build trust?

Derrick Feldmann

Farra Trompeter, co-director, sits down with Derrick Feldmann, managing director of Ad Council Research Institute and Ad Council Edge, who shares tips for nonprofit staff who are looking to connect awareness and action, to reach people who are hard to reach, and who want to equip trusted messengers to be amplifiers of their mission.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re gonna ask the question, how can you raise awareness and build trust? We’re gonna dive into this topic with Derrick Feldmann. Derrick, he/him, is recognized internationally as a leading researcher and advisor on social issues, movements, communications, and consumer public action. He leads the Ad Council Research Institute where he oversees research studies and provides media, entertainment agencies, and marketing communications professionals with key insights on messaging and behavior change. Derrick, welcome to the show.

Derrick Feldmann: Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.

Farra Trompeter: I’m so glad to have you.

Farra Trompeter: Now, before we get started, I did want to issue a content warning to our listeners. In this podcast, we will be discussing the work Derrick has done related to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. We will discuss various experiences that you may find yourself identifying with while listening. Should you need emotional or mental health-related support, please contact 988 or a local trusted support entity.

Farra Trompeter: Okay. Derrick, I wanna just start out by talking about what you do and how you help people use research to understand insights and build strong communications. Obviously, that overlaps with a lot of what we do, but I think you do a deeper level of research, and in particular, a lot of your research is expressly connected to behavior change, which is really exciting. So yeah, talk a little bit about what you do, Derrick.

Derrick Feldmann: That sounds similar to questions I often field when I’m at home with my parents when they’re like, “What exactly do you do?” Right?

Farra Trompeter: There you go.

Derrick Feldmann: So, I have the fantastic job of leading the Ad Council’s Research Institute and essentially it’s our aim here is to really help whoever it is, a partner, client, government agencies, whoever’s to try to truly understand a target audience. What they know, what they don’t know, their attitudes, their biases, their perceptions. We wanna get underneath the hood to understand that individual’s overall viewpoint on an issue. And honestly, that helps us to truly understand whether or not campaigns, communications, things like you and I work on on a regular basis, to try to see if there’s any opportunities for behavior change. Right? So enacting call to actions that hopefully over time through good intensity and frequency help the individual move to a different state of behavior. So we spend a lot of energy, not necessarily just looking at does this phrase work that’s technically a little easier, right?

Derrick Feldmann: I can put something in front of people and get that reaction, but it’s more on the upside of this. It’s, it’s in the forefront of all of it where I have to understand how does an individual come to this place of looking at this issue through their lens. How do they perceive this issue? And much of that comes down to, as all of us, how we were grown up, our families, economics, all kinds of conditions and things that we really, really need to examine before we even get to the, I wonder what we’re gonna call this campaign, right? So that’s the work I do.

Farra Trompeter: Well, thank you. And I’m sure my mom and mom’s out there appreciate that explanation.

Derrick Feldmann: Exactly. I try to every time, especially when they’re friends of parents are around. Oh yeah. It’s even harder. Yeah, yeah,

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I still have a hard time explaining to my family what I do, so thank you for that. I might have to use some of that. So like you, we at Big Duck believe in creating brands and campaigns that are informed by and centered around the people you hope to engage. Right? Our priority audiences. And when you and I were preparing for this conversation, you mentioned that you follow the KAB model and I would love it if you could explain what that is for our listeners out there and how you apply it.

Derrick Feldmann: Yeah. So every individual, as I mentioned just a second ago, views certain social issues through a different lens or through a particular lens. Sometimes that lens is shared within groups or by culture or by race or ethnicity. It just really depends overall experience as well. When we look at it, I often try to, especially when I’m working with fellow researchers, say we have to unpack what’s known and unknown around the issue. And then even in looking at what’s known and unknown is to say, well, I wonder why they only know those aspects or what is tying that knowledge to something that they’ve attained or retained in some way? It might be familiarity. It might be just, oh, you know, secondhand knowledge of something and I worked on voting work and I would hear, well, not in my backyard, but I know it happens because it happens over there, right? Kind of thing.

Derrick Feldmann: So we really focus first on our audience’s knowledge, what they don’t know, what they know, why, and how they first became knowledgeable about that. Now, we didn’t used to spend too much time on that part, Farra, but we have to now because what we know is that there are so many messengers communicating knowledge, some of it good information, some of it maybe needs to be corrected in certain ways as well. So knowledge first. The second thing is, is that we often dive into our audience’s attitudes, biases, and perceptions. Those are very key, especially as communicators. If I want to just say, here’s a fact about an issue, well they already have a bias or perception that’s going to, you know, muddy that maybe a little bit. And I need to understand where that comes from. It comes from things like family and upbringing, maybe faith.

Derrick Feldmann: It may come from experience firsthand, secondhand. It may come from cultural or economic or social conditions in which that the individual grew up or anything else. And so all of those sort of plant a seed for us to understand whether or not that person is willing to act, change one’s behavior, in general. And what’s interesting on the B of the KAB model is we not only look at what existing behaviors, but something that we often talk about here, which is what are conscious inactions? What is something somebody does not do because they’re rightfully choosing so? And there has to be something, a barrier standing in the way, right? In general. And I think especially ’cause I know your audience is a lot of nonprofit communicators and marketers, we often come to the assumption that because there’s no action, it’s a choice of lack of knowledge or an attitude.

Derrick Feldmann: And I’m like, well, they may know this, right? There may be just something else. There’s a conscious reason that they’re choosing not to do it, right? And we’re starting to do voting research and other things. And you’re gonna see, I’m gonna choose maybe not to vote ’cause I don’t like the candidates. Well, they know the importance of voting, I hope, right? You know, we’re going through all of these different stages. So knowledge, attitudes, behaviors establish the foundation in which messaging is starting to develop from. We can’t really get to the message frames or the development of something until we try to understand those key elements with our audience.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. Well, I’m gonna jump to the behavior piece for a minute. As some people out there know, I’m also an adjunct professor and one of my favorite articles that I have my students read and discuss is an article that came out in 2017 and the Stanford Social Innovation Review called Stop Raising Awareness Already by Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand. And in that article, the authors discuss how many organizations build campaigns focused on awareness with no clear call to action and how those have little to no impact. And I’m just curious, I am sure you see this too, a lot of organizations talk about how we wanna raise awareness. How can we get organizations to go beyond awareness and into building trust so that therefore we can have action?

Derrick Feldmann: Absolutely. So I wanna get to the awareness versus action conundrum piece because you can imagine a lot of people come to the Ad Council and say, “I wanna raise awareness” maybe every single hour on the hour, right? And I think there’s kind of two things to look at from that perspective before we get to trust. One is, is that there is a lot of noise just in the regular space of communications in general. And I always look at it with, and I remind anybody I work with to say, one, the American public’s busy, they’re gonna tell us they have no time. They are going to consume a lot of messages. And secondly, is that if we really want them to take action, we have to understand where they’re coming from, potentially look at it from the path of least resistance, right? Our minds from a behavior change is always looking at ways to kind of do the least, to get the most right?

Derrick Feldmann: So if it’s like, I’m gonna get to lower Manhattan today, in order to do that, I am going to choose things like, I’m gonna choose routes and I’m gonna go through Google or Maps or whatever it might look like to try to do the least, to get the most. And I think as we look at awareness building, some of our assumptions building into it is we often create assumptions on if somebody is knowledgeable, back to that piece we talked about, they’re immediately going to be incited to take action. It doesn’t happen. We have to carry step by step. The second part of that that’s really, really key is, is that we often ask sometimes the public to do a lot upfront rather than waiting to ease them in a little bit. You know, sometimes I look at things like gateway actions, you know, for instance, a simple gateway action that we have is nudging.

Derrick Feldmann: Nudging campaigns are very actionable. We have a campaign called Seize the Awkward, amazing campaign for young people around mental health. And the whole goal, it’s not to make a friend an expert on mental health, it’s just to say, “Hey, I noticed that you seem a little off.” It’s a nudging campaign to say, I know a place where you could go. It’s just to persuade that way. Versus saying, you know, our responsibility now is to try to do a campaign where everybody goes this far with this, you know, kind of piece. So in my experience, awareness doesn’t sometimes lead to action because we build into our thinking and understanding that knowledge will immediately be action, or we’re building high levels of expectation and not really easing people into some stuff. The second thing around trust, trust is really key As a communicator, Farra, you and I both know I have to look at two things, how many times I have to communicate and how long, right?

Derrick Feldmann: Intensity and frequency over message. And that takes effort and time and a willingness. And I think what’s really hard about that is not everybody has time, effort, resources to make that happen. That’s one thing. But the other thing is, is that we’ve looked at it from the perspective of the just communications alone is going to solve it. And it really isn’t, communications along with other efforts. On the ground conversations, collaborative work between others. You know, when we worked on Trusted Messengers with our COVID campaign work, we were finding individuals and communities supplying them with information to be our on the ground communicators while we looked at what we were doing on the airwaves and everywhere else it was not an or it’s an and. And so when somebody hears a message, sees a billboard, sees something out there, and they first get that inclination and say, “Huh, I saw that” and now somebody I really trust my faith leader, my small business owner, my local news anchor, who tends to be someone that’s really great, you know, and if I’m thinking about America, right, you know, those are all people that that frequency becomes the trusted conversion. And I think what’s challenging is, is everybody expects one ad in a digital space to be that to happen immediately.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. There’s the law of effective frequency, right? You have to see something at least seven times in order to register it. Something like that.

Derrick Feldmann: Yeah. The media teams has this calculation. But, you know, in general, we need to see it, witness it, experience, consume it, and then we need others around us to also somewhat validate, amplify it for us too as well.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. Reinforce the message. Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.

Derrick Feldmann: And we did this Farra, you know, kind of staying on the trust side, after Covid, we used Trusted Messengers a lot in Covid. Yes, we had everybody from the Pope involved, to local influencers all the way on the ground, you know, working on things. But all of our campaigns, and especially work on the ACRI side of the Research Institute focuses using Trusted Messengers to try to understand who are those individuals that we need to recruit or also engage just like that peer. Because I can directly communicate to someone and say, you know, “Here’s a resource for you.” I also need that friend to say, “Hey, this is something as well.” So when we do this Trusted Messengers ecosystem, and we can maybe share the link if you want to with everybody to our big research study on it. We created this ecosystem that talks about, obviously everybody goal would love to have influencers and content creators amplify a message, which we do, but we also have rungs of that ladder that are in there to say, okay, who are we going to get to partner with that influencer to talk about it from a fact perspective, an expert.

Derrick Feldmann: Maybe, who else do we need on the ground that’s going to be our voice and advocate in that local community once they hear it up there too as well? So this ecosystem is something we built with our campaigns and in our research too, because we don’t just see it as a one mechanism, a one time digital and a content creator create something. It’s an ecosystem of people around the person that needs to help and support to really make it happen.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, that’s great. I love a good audience mapping exercise, sounds like that’s part of that. Send me the information. And for those of you out there listening, if you go to, we’ll have a transcript of this podcast and we’ll be sure to have lots of links to many of the great gems that Derrick is sharing. So certainly come back to our site. I do wanna now talk about the research and messaging work you did for 988, which also has some great content that we will link to. But could you talk a little bit about that? What tools did you create to help mental health professionals, organizations, friends and family members reach those folks who are most at risk for suicide?

Derrick Feldmann: Yeah, this was, this is one of these, you know, there are projects I think that you work on or I work on, or anybody works on. You’re like, this is one of those where you’re like, anything I could do. And it was a very meaningful piece here because at the Ad Council one of our major pillars of work is mental health. We have lots of different campaigns and efforts across the organization that’s working on this. So Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the Action Alliance, and also SAMHSA, and some partners, CDC and others. They came together and looking at how do we communicate with people who are most at risk and disproportionately impacted by suicide, right? So this is Black, 13 to 34, AI, you know, American Indian, Alaska Native, young audiences, Hispanic, Latino, AANHPI, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities, rural older men as well, 49+. And it was our aim to help understand from an insights perspective that knowledge, attitudes and behaviors around using a service like 988.

Derrick Feldmann: And when you’re doing this, you start to remember, earlier I was talking about biases and perceptions, you start to get into things around trust, you get into things with, if I open up to that person who I don’t know and have never met, have no idea whether or not they know my experience and come from the same space that they would listen and they would really help me. Especially at a time when I need it most, in crisis, or in anything else. And so we spent, we’ve been spending the last year in this first study working on just understanding that audience’s knowledge, and behaviors around it, testing lots of messages and frames, and there are nuances that you start to think about and say, well, you know, sometimes when you use the word crisis, even in a communication, people will say, I’m not in crisis, but yet they might actually be or close to.

Derrick Feldmann: So even the frames, the words. So what we were trying to do is help everybody who works directly with all of the at-risk disproportionately impacted communities and and cohorts and populations to understand how do we talk about mental health and crisis and suicide? And then also how do we look at that from their perspective of outreach for 988? Because when we think about encouraging someone to use a service like that, we have to overcome some barriers and challenges that we come from other experiences, whether that’s in certain communities saying, “You know what, this seems like you might call the law enforcement on me if I called you.” Or it might be, I don’t know, like what makes them really trusted and confidential? Is it really that way? And you know what, I don’t have health insurance. How do I know it’s free? How do I know that you’re really not gonna bill me? Things that you and I may never, ever know, or you know, then you’re like, okay, so that’s their barrier.

Derrick Feldmann: But the thing you have to do from a good research perspective is say, what is the reason behind that? There has to be other things, situations that occurred we have to dive into. And so that’s where we also spend time. One of the greatest outputs of that first wave of the study was to produce toolkits based on each of those cohorts on phrases to use, on things to watch out for, pieces to really highlight and encourage. And also, one of the things that we did is we had these things called conditional frames where we set up all different kinds of barriers and framings in case if as a communicator, you were not getting the kind of response and say, look at the audience and understand if these are the barriers based upon the segments that we were doing to start to use some of this language. And so to really, really help them.

Derrick Feldmann: It’s been an incredible piece. And we’re not done. We are actually working on a large-scale Trusted Messenger study, more than 12,000 friends, spouses, partners, mothers, and caregivers, as well as interconnected partners and others associated with our at-risk and disproportionately impacted individuals to help us understand, remember that nudging, how can they help to encourage some of that use as a trusted messenger overall. So we’ll be releasing that in the summer, which is really great. And so it’ll be a good piece, hopefully we’ll share with your audience as well.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, definitely. I think this episode will probably air sooner than that research comes out, but again, we will link to the page where people can see the current research and then hopefully bookmark it and get it on your list to get the next one. Now, I imagine there might be people out there listening and wondering how do they apply this to their nonprofit? What can they take from what you’re saying and use to guide their communications? So I’m just curious, Derrick, what tips do you have for staff out there who do wanna connect awareness and action, who want to reach people that are hard to reach, who want to equip trusted messengers to be amplifiers? How can they take all these great insights that they don’t have the budget or the access to work with a robust research shop like yours? How can they really bring this on a day-to-day level?

Derrick Feldmann: Yeah, so good question, and I often get that too. It’s like, we’re not the Ad Council, and I’m like, I get it. I understand. And you know, honestly, one of the things that we really aim to do at the Research Institute is provide all these insights for everybody can download it and use it and so forth. So, you know, make sure and look at our other studies because this is a really key thing of our service that we wanna also with our clients and others provide. When I look at this, I look at it from two perspectives, and it kind of comes to the fundamental piece that we talked at the onset, and Farra, you talked a lot about this too, which is how do we truly understand the audiences that we’re trying to reach? There could be a zero budget on this, honestly, which is are we taking the time, care, and effort to sit down with our audience and to try to ask a series of questions to get to know their situations in how they approach this issue from their perspective in their own shoes and in their own words.

Derrick Feldmann: And honestly, that can take everything from just hours in a day to more sophisticated measures. But you know, when we think about all of those pieces, it’s really, really key for us to understand that aspect in general. And I often say to marketers, even one person shops is, whether it’s through your Board or whether through other organizations and partners that you work with, do the due diligence to try to understand knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. And that could be simply as in a marketer doing that to hiring somebody to do it. The second thing is that one of the elements that we often say here is that if you can create a group that you can socialize things in front of that are not really close to you hard, because as marketers and communication folks, it’s really easy to fall in love with our own ideas and feel very hurt when they’re not accepted.

Derrick Feldmann: But it’s really even a little easier when these are people we really don’t know, right? You know, my mom, well, she doesn’t quite know what I do. She’s gonna fall in love probably with my own idea regardless, right? So she’s probably not a part of that, but we often look at it and say, how are we socializing our content with? And what I tend to see is, is that we’re socializing stuff sort of towards the tail end and not during the process, right? It’s like, oh, we’ve got a tagline, we’ve got a comms piece, it’s final, and you really want it to be final. As a marketer and a communicator, you’re like, I want no feedback, really. Right? But they do. You know, we should have started this along a lot earlier. And for us at ACRI, one of the things that we do is we don’t even focus on those messaging pieces yet, we focus on frames. How do we even just talk about this?

Derrick Feldmann: And this is a very key piece, especially for a marketer working on a social issue, is to say, is even the way that we describe our issue, does that even make sense? Before I can even talk about you taking an action to get there, right? So we often say you need a twice removed sort of group in a committee that you can socialize content with and replace them often, recruit and even if you have to buy a pizza for them or whatever it is, you know, do whatever you can, but you need to start that process earlier than waiting to final, like comms checks essentially is what we’re looking at. The third thing I would say, and this really gets to reaching people, I get it on budgets completely, and paid advertising is, you know, it can be quite expensive over time, especially we’re talking about frequencies and intensities, but much of this also comes down to on the ground relationships.

Derrick Feldmann: If you’re a local organization, I’ll tell you what, you can compete if you want to with those in the digital airspace all you want, but here’s what you can’t compete with when you’re really local. You can’t compete with the relationships you have with that small business owner. You can’t compete with some of these other very leaders role models within local communities. I can’t reach them as best as you can, honestly. And so those are individuals that you need to recruit, and it doesn’t become a typical, I’m just gonna put an ad in front of you. It’s you need to spend time developing a trusted messenger grouping for yourself to help activate on campaigns. Again, these are simple ideas that I think allow a person to say, I don’t necessarily need to have a big budget. I just need to invest the time and energy in the upfront work to get the maximum output at the end.

Farra Trompeter: Awesome, so many great ideas there. If you’re out there and you want to learn about Derrick’s work, head over to and follow the links to the Ad Council Research Institute under the Learn menu. You can also connect with Derrick on LinkedIn through his whole name, which is D-E-R-R-I-C-K-F as in Frank, or Farra, E-L-D-M-A-N-N. Derrick, thank you so much for being here. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners before we sign off?

Derrick Feldmann: I would just say test optimize, get in the market and learn honestly, because as much as I do in the research space, before something gets into the market, there is always that element of putting in front of somebody and spending some time optimizing it. And it may not be perfect the first time, but that’s what you do as marketers, right? We fail and learn as we move forward. So keep that in mind as you start to communicate.

Farra Trompeter: Love it. Well, everyone out there, have a great day.