Why the Advocacy Language We Use Matters

The language we use in campaigns matters. So how do we know what will resonate with audiences and move them to action? The answer is simple: we test it.

The lesson struck home years ago, when I taught an advocacy class with Gerry Gunster, the CEO of Gunster Strategies Worldwide and an expert on issue advocacy. Gunster has a 95 percent win rate over the last 25 years, and has worked on major campaigns such as Brexit.

At one point in the day-long class, Gunster was explaining his work defeating New York’s effort to limit the size of sugary drinks that vendors could sell. He brought out a massive binder and went on to explain that it contained all of the research that was done for the campaign, which tested everything from which people should deliver the message to the messaging itself to see what resonated with New Yorkers.

Research, Gunster said, was extremely important. It guides a successful campaign.

Example: The Impact of Language

That applies to messaging and the language that we use in our advocacy content. That doesn’t mean we forfeit authenticity in favor of manipulation. Rather, it means we find out more about how our audience perceives the language we use, so we can communicate more effectively.

Take, for example, the food and beverage industry. Morning Consult recently released a report addressing consumer trends, which included research on terminology. You can see an excerpt in the screenshot above. Part of the report studied how food label terms appealed to consumers. For instance, the research found that the word “fresh” drew an extremely favorable response, with 81 percent saying it appealed to them. “Farm fresh” was rated similarly.

By contrast, the results were mixed on terms like “organic” and “vegan.” Only 13 percent had an unfavorable reaction to the word “organic,” while 48 percent — almost half — favored the term. But the term “vegan” was perceived very differently.  More than one third (35 percent) had an unfavorable reaction while just 17 percent said it had appeal.

If you are conducting advocacy in that industry, that’s valuable information. It would almost certainly impact how you communicate.

Testing the Language We Use

So, how do we test language? Polling is the best answer, and that makes sense for those gearing up for big, expensive campaigns. If you are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, a few grand on polling is money well spent.

But what about smaller campaigns or those that that don’t have the big budget? There are strategies to get research done for those, too.

  • Buy a Question. Adding a question to an existing poll is much cheaper than commissioning a full pull. If your organization already does polling, inquire about inserting a question. If not, there are polling shops that will allow you to add a question to polls they conduct regularly.
  • Buy Existing Research. Many firms, including Morning Consult, do industry research. In some cases, these reports can inform your work, as shown above.
  • Web Polling. Polling firms that use online panels to generate their data can be much cheaper than traditional telephone polling.
  • Conduct a Survey. If you are communicating with a defined audience, like an association membership or a group of customers, you can survey them yourself using tools like Survey Monkey. This can generate a great deal of data without a great deal of expense.
  • Instagram Stories. These are photo and video posts that disappear after 24 hours—a great medium to test messaging based on the response from your audience. And the price is right.
  • Google AdWords. This is a great way to conduct A/B tests on your messaging. Create a post and then run two Google ads using different language to gain readers. If your Adwords scheme is setup correctly, with the right keywords and enough budget, you will see very quickly which messaging performs better.

Your research may be as simple as a question like, “which of these statements do you most agree with?” Or it could be more sophisticated. But the advice of Steve Krug, whose book Don’t Make Me Think is a seminal work on website design and usability, is applicable here.

Krug is a huge fan of simplicity. When talking about usability testing, in which an organization invites people to use their site, observes them and takes notes on what needs to change, he argues that less is often more. “If it is short, it is more likely to be used,” he wrote, adding that, “You don’t need to know everything.”

Don’t stall your work. Don’t over-complicate things. But do try to gain insight into which language resonates most. However you do it, some audience feedback, as long as it is credible, is better than none.

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