Let’s Be Real for a Minute

September 9, 2015
Shannon Manning, Vice President, Advocate Engagement

We talk a lot about business-to-business and business-to-consumer communication, and while the strategies involved are valuable, there’s a type of communication that’s even more valuable when it comes to engaging people in advocacy: human-to-human communication.

The rise of email and social media has created much greater frequency and volume of communication, but has also arguably lessened the quality of our conversations. Personal relationships remain fundamental in grassroots campaigning and in recruiting both brand and issue advocates. One of the best ways to help your advocacy communications stand apart from the rest of the online noise is to humanize them—make them sound like real people having a conversation about things that matter. Human-to-human conversation helps to take broader issues that may seem arcane (e.g., taxes, environmental issues, legal statutes) and put them in contexts that people can relate to.

Humanizing your communications involves everything from your general tone to how well you avoid jargon and how accessible you make technical information. Online clothing retailer Zappos has done a great job of enhancing their online experience for customers to come as close to being in a store with a live salesperson as possible. Check out their “Ask Zappos” tool, which engages real Zappos staff members in helping users find just the right shirt or pair of shoes. It’s just one of the many resources on their website that humanize the customer’s experience.

Even when you’re talking to internal audiences who have a higher level of knowledge than the general public, it’s important to remember that they’re human too. People can easily get overwhelmed with technical information and overly complicated message delivery so it is important to understand that complexity does not equate to better quality communication.

One particularly great example of the difference between being technical and technically accurate is the old Schoolhouse Rock video, “I’m Just a Bill.” The technical details of turning a bill into a law are described accurately, but in a way that is simple and engaging enough that children can understand it—and even decades later most adults still remember it.

You don’t have to have the song and dance—or even the video—to make your communications compelling; what makes these examples successful is the underlying principle of putting human faces and voices on things that would otherwise be dry, sterile, and much less accessible.

In building an advocate base, it is crucial to remember that what matters to your audience supersedes what matters to any particular organization, company, or political party. People are most often motivated by individual values, emotions, and interests rather than the interests of large organizations or industries. That’s true even when you’re trying to engage employees—sometimes they can be the most skeptical and hardest-to-reach audiences out there.

Quality Communication Leads to Valuable Results

Within the context of human-to-human communication, there are several core principles of good conversation that will resonate with an audience and successfully personalize issues:

  • The conversation must be truly “conversational” – There is a significant difference between pushing out information and communicating with authenticity. In good conversation, the value comes from a mutual understanding and personal connection between the initiator and the target audience. Ultimately, your advocates need to know that you trust them and they can trust you. When that mutual trust exists, people are much more likely to take the actions you want them to take.
  • Use storytelling to bridge the gap between “technical” and “technically accurate” – Communication can be too technical from both an industry perspective and from a political perspective, and this is where you can lose your audience. Come out of the weedy particulars and use tangible examples to tell the story of your issue. You’ll be empowering your advocates to articulate their opinions in their own words, and that in turn will have a much greater impact with lawmakers and other decision-makers.
  • Communication is more than words – While sitting down with every potential advocate to have a personal conversation may not be practical, there are certain tools that can bring your message to individuals on a personal level without requiring that you be there in the room with them. Videos, webinars, print ads, direct mail, tele-town halls, authentic (aka, non-stock) imagery, social media dialogue, etc. are communication techniques that play a significant role in personalizing and humanizing your messages.

In today’s hyper-communicative culture, integrating human-to-human communication into your strategy will connect you with your target audiences—your people—on a deeper level. People connect with other people; this is not a novel concept. But finding novel ways to achieve it is what will set your campaign apart and build long-term loyalty among your advocates.


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