As a communications director, I’m often approached by a frustrated colleague or friend:
“Nobody is clicking our post / reading our newsletter / opening our e-mails / responding to our survey / (and the list goes on). I’ve tried everything! What am I missing?”
I’ll ask a few questions, we’ll talk a little bit, and virtually every time, it comes back to this: It’s time to tune into station WII-FM … What’s In It For Me?
The fact is, it doesn’t matter what we want to say, or what we want people to know. It doesn’t even matter what we NEED them to know. Our message won’t bypass the average person’s drinking-from-the-information-fire-hydrant filter if it doesn’t resonate in a way that fills a personal need. Because let’s face it: When it comes to our audience’s long list of priorities, the messages we typically want or need to push out aren’t at the top. (Or most times, even in the bottom middle.)
Think of WII-FM as that station that comes in the strongest and clearest in the car and, consequently, the one you are the most likely to have on. It’s the place where a person hears what she needs for her day, for her job, for her family. The need-to-know information that makes a person’s day run. As communicators, only the messages that hit that same frequency stand a real chance of engaging our audience’s attention or prompting action.
The good news? Most messages can be reframed (a little or a lot) to resonate on the “what’s in it for me” channel. Yes, it’s sometimes a little sad to know that my information won’t be valued solely on its merits (because dang, I write some righteous messages!), but my own pride is worthless if my message falls flat.
If a message goes out and nobody hears it, it doesn’t make a sound. And more importantly, it doesn’t make a difference. To anyone.
We can do better! Open up your toolbox and pull out your empathetic skills, your devil’s advocate skills, and your mind-bending-creative-thinking skills. Each is essential to tuning into WII-FM. And consider these two questions as you frame your message to hit the right frequency for your audience:
- Is this message naturally important to the audience? In the case of parents in our school district, naturally important messages include snow days, crisis updates and specific health information that has an immediate effect on their student (head lice, anyone?). Just because you have truly important information, don’t assume that it’s important to the audience. Our school district office moved to a new location last summer — something several audiences genuinely needed to know — but we made sure to frame our communications around messages, timelines and channels that were finely tuned to the needs and motivations of our employees and stakeholder groups. For employees, few things are more motivating than knowing you need to go somewhere new to pick up your paycheck.
- If the message doesn’t qualify as naturally important, what priorities or values do you share? You and your audience both may place a strong value on the message, but you likely are motivated by different forces. For example, school districts need students in our schools, so we work hard on tardiness and absenteeism. But it’s unlikely that a school’s administrative need to have kids at school will motivate a parent. Instead, we must frame our communications around these types of questions: What is the advantage for a mom to have her child in school? How does this genuinely help make a dad’s life easier? (N.B., This must be something that the audience member would agree makes his or her life better or easier. If you aren’t certain, spend some time talking to a few sample audience members about the issue. Because if you’re wrong, you simply won’t hit the frequency.)
While my examples all reflect my work in a school district, WII-FM is just as important with any non-profit, small business, corporation or government agency. In all cases, the messages and information we’re pushing out must resonate with our audience on a self-interest level, in order to cut through the noise and catch the audience’s attention.
The best part? The more we’re able to frame messages around the “what’s in it for me” model, the more capital we’ll have to spend at times when the messages aren’t directly tied to our audience’s immediate needs. Whether a call to action for advocacy on your behalf, a request for financial support or an invitation to attend a focus group or event — these things typically don’t fall at the top of most people’s lists. But your audience members will much more likely tune into your station, if you’ve shown them over time that you’re clearly tuned into theirs.