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June 24, 2008

Communicating With the Public

-- by Dave Johnson

This post originally appeared at the Commonweal Institute Blog.

Many progressive think the public already understands a lot of what progressives stand for. But this is not the case. This thinking comes from already being a progressive, and talking to lots of other progressives. But we need to understand that the public in general is not well educated about progressives, and that communicating needs to start with basics.

I learned this in business, when I was doing direct mail marketing: It's a core mistake to think that the audience you want to reach thinks the way you and I do as we spend time on blogs like this one. You have to learn NOT to trust your instincts and instead trust market testing and other scientific methods to get a read on what the target audience is thinking - and what they hear when you talk to them. The mass market out there is very different from the people who want to reach them, both in products and political ideas.

If you think about it for a minute, this has to be the case or you wouldn't be trying to reach them in the first place - they would already know what you want them to know. The people who make a product already know what it does, how it is used, etc... So they just can't relate to people who don't yet. There are things they take for granted, but the target audience has not yet been exposed to. So in products you wouldn't need to market your product if the customers out there already understood what it is and what it does for them. In our case here we wouldn't need to explain progressive ideas and policies if the public already understood why they want them. But they don't. If we want to persuade the public to share our values and support our ideas we have to explain to them the benefits THEY will get out of doing so. To do that we have to learn what THEY hear, and how they hear things, before we can reach them.

We have to realize that the people who already understand these concepts today are fundamentally different from the rest of the public. (Try to write a product manual telling an elderly person how to use your software and you will see what I mean.) We seek out the blogs, and read lots of news. Much of the public is almost the opposite of this. They don't read newspapers, they don't watch the NewsHour, and they are not scouring the internet and critically evaluating what they find. (NO ONE but us knows about the billions in cash that were shipped to Iraq and disappeared, for example, but it is part of the foundation of our understanding of what is happening to our country.) But the right does reach them. They have figured out how to trigger the word-of-mouth channels through which people come to know what they "know." How many people STILL believe that Iraq attacked us on 9/11?

In direct mail I learned that the stuff that makes me and probably you retch is the stuff that sells the most product. I have to tell you I learned it the very hardest way because I would not expose my customers to that crap. And then a third party company did a test mailing and the sales tripled. So I learned from that.

I don't mean to sound like I am lecturing. I'm trying to share some lessons I learned in some very hard ways - that you just have to trust scientific methods to learn what your target audience thinks, and understand the we are often unable to know that ourselves.

Posted by Dave Johnson at June 24, 2008 9:31 AM

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Comments

As a former Democratic Party County Chair I would confirm your assertion. I am always amazed at what some die hard Democrats think!

Posted by: phastphil at June 25, 2008 9:07 AM

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