Is Your Message Missing Its Call to Action?

I’ve reviewed and sharpened plenty of organizational messages over the years. There are two critical elements I often find missing. One is context. More on that another time.

Today we’re here to talk about the all-too-frequently missing call to action.

A recent paper in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “Stop Raising Awareness Already” supports a principle I’ve long been driving home to my clients: Most messaging lacks a clear call to action.

The paper’s authors, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand, both of the University of Florida College of Journalism, argue that raising the public’s level of awareness isn’t enough. They write that activists—and I would include corporate and association executives in the mix, too—should “craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.”

Some participants in my communications training workshops look somewhat shaken when I tell them that public information campaigns, while noble, are in many cases a colossal waste of time and resources, both human and capital. You’ve educated people. Great. Now what? How does a more informed public help your organization’s cause?

Megaphone change

Are they volunteering? Are they buying your product or contributing to your cause? Are they voting the way you want? Hmm, not so much, eh?

In their paper, Christiano and Neimand note, “research and experience both show that we must define actionable and achievable calls to action that will lead a specific group of people to do something they haven’t done before.”

Communications training is more than teaching executives to talk pretty (yes, I acknowledge that some communications and government relations folks who ought to know better believe that canard). The ultimate aim is to help a business reach its organizational goals and to help participants enhance their career paths. Part of reaching both of those objectives means empowering them with a clear and powerful call to action. Otherwise, yeah, they are doing little more than learning to talk pretty.

What’s more, this call to action needs to be meaningful. Going forth with a limp message that just preaches to the choir does no one any good. If your motivation consists of boosting your Facebook likes or Twitter followers, you’re not persuading anyone. You’re just making yourself feel better while basking in the comfort of your private echo chamber.

I often put it in terms political operatives understand (yes, guilty, I’ve been there). A quick and dirty means of measuring support for a candidate is to rank voters from 1 to 5. The 1s are with you no matter what; the 5s will fight you to the death. Smart campaigns all but ignore both ends of the spectrum and concentrate on the 3s—those who are sitting on the fence. So it should be with any corporate messaging campaign. Persuade those who need persuasion and who may be open to it.

What might such calls to actions involve? Consider the following forums:

  • Presentations: What do you want audience members talking about in the corridors after your talk?
  • Media interviews: What do you want the reporter to write?
  • Public policy initiatives: How do you want that lawmaker to vote?

As Christiano and Neimand write, one risk “that poorly devised awareness campaigns have is that they reach a different audience than the one that was intended. This might be an audience that is unsympathetic to the campaign’s goals or one that might already be convinced of its goals.”

They go on to say, “There are four essential elements to creating a successful public interest communications campaign: target your audience as narrowly as possible; create compelling messages with clear calls to action; develop a theory of change; and use the right messenger.”

Discussions involving audience targeting, compelling calls to action, and choice of the right spokesperson should be mandatory components in any media training program.

The next time you caucus for a messaging session or hold your next communications training workshop, make sure to put these questions on the table: What do we want our target audiences to do once they understand our stance? And how can we get them there?

Now ask yourself, how do my messages stack up? Here’s your call to action: Be bold enough to join the conversation by commenting below.



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