7 Reasons Why Your Messages Don’t Fly, and How to Fix Them

A week doesn’t go by these days without some kind of epic fail on the part of one brand or another. It’s not just major consumer brands; dozens of comms campaigns crash and burn in the B2B space every year, but no one ever hears about them because they targeted niche markets.

What I’ve learned from countless post-presentation Q & A sessions is that most good communicators really want to know why their brilliant idea failed. Let’s learn from some failure…

1. Focus first on the recipient, not on the message

Almost all of the major consumer brand fails in the last year were caused by insensitivity to racial or ethnic stereotypes. It’s as if all these campaigns were cooked up in a tall tower entirely inhabited by white people who take Ubers to work and never venture out of their respective bubbles. I’m not blaming all the fails on New York’s Madison Avenue culture. Some of the blame should go to people who watched too many episodes of Mad Men without realizing it took place five decades ago and was supposed to be fiction.

But seriously, the number one rule for effective communications in 2019 is to have (or find) empathy for your target audience. Understand what makes them tick and what it’s like to walk in their shoes. And then sit down and craft a message built around their needs and interests. And then figure out what or who will influence them to listen to it. If you need some help with your empathy, read our recent article “Corporate Empathy: Why You Want It, How to Get It, and How to Measure It.”

2. Without information seeking there is no exposure

Research shows that individuals only absorb information when they think they need it and it will benefit them in some way. So breaking through the clutter requires more than just cleverness. Today people must be seeking (consciously or unconsciously) information in order for your messages to penetrate.

Too often we get caught up in the search for creative expression and innovative ways to deliver the message. But any good behavioral expert will tell you that humans today will not pay attention to your message unless they have a good reason to.

Think about it. Do you sit and stare at a TV car ad if you have no need for a car? No, you chose to go to the bathroom, look at your Facebook messages, or do something else until the ad is over. The real-life version is that few people typically pay attention to the government’s urging to get flu shots until flu season is in full swing, or until a friend or family member comes down with it.

3. People prefer to imagine that their world is good as is

Safety messages are particularly important for governmental agencies and organizations that are trying to communicate effectively around health issues, disasters, weather-related threats, or other potential public safety risks. The last thing people want to pay attention to is something that is scary or takes away their idea of a world being a safe place to live. So you have to convince them that their not paying attention poses a threat to them or their family or their neighbors.

4. Exposure doesn’t equal awareness or understanding

I judge a lot of award programs, and most of them include dozens of entries that list “raising awareness” as the objective. I immediately jump ahead to the Results section of the entries. As soon as I see the words “impressions,” “engagement,” or—god forbid—”EMV” or “AVE” in that section, the entry goes straight into the dumpster. No matter how many trillions precede those stated results. As we’ve said so many, many times, impressions and likes do not equal awareness. Awareness can only be measured by asking people if they are aware.

Even more notable, a goal of “awareness” is often a complete misnomer. Does anyone actually need to be more “aware” of breast cancer or any other common disease? Of course not. We may need more awareness of how to prevent it, or what to do if you find a lump, or how to contribute to fight it, but we don’t need any more awareness of the disease. What we need is more knowledge about specific aspects of it.

The “Aflac Isn’t” campaign is a perfect example of how to execute a knowledge campaign. Aflac’s research indicated that they didn’t need more awareness of the brand name or its ubiquitous duck. But while everyone was familiar with the brand, most people didn’t have a clue what it did. So Aflac launched a campaign to educate people on what it is and isn’t in the insurance market.

Similarly, Patagonia wasn’t looking for brand awareness when it launched its iconic “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign. By using an apparent negative it prodded the reader to explore the message about all the ways that Patagonia was trying to save the planet.

5. Your audience doesn’t trust the messenger

There is no doubt that trust in traditional media sources has declined, as has trust in governmental entities. And, while the latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows it’s improved a bit in the last year, less than half of the general population trusts the media or government. Only a little more than half (54%) of Americans trust companies.

And the catch is, if they don’t trust the messenger, then they’re not going to pay attention to or believe in the message.

More importantly, many of the old stalwarts of the media—network news, Time, Newsweek, and so many others—no longer exist in their previously trusted forms. Instead, today’s consumers are listening to their friends, their neighbors (via new platforms like NextDoor) and people like them that they find on specific places on Reddit, Facebook, or other platforms. So it’s very possible that they never even see your message, never mind make a decision as to whether to trust it or not.

6. Lack of consistent two-way dialog

The one requirement that people today require of both brands and politicians is for them to listen and respond—i.e., to engage in two-way conversations. Whether that conversation consists of a plea for help on Twitter, an answer to a question on Facebook, or a meet and greet, in order to build trust, credibility, and a willingness to listen to your messaging, you must establish a two-way street. If this is not completely obvious to you, then you need to read our recent article “Corporate Empathy: Why You Want It, How to Get It, and How to Measure It.”

7. Too big a gap between your message and your audience: Is your message timely and relevant?

There are two major gaps that prevent effective messaging:

  1. Time: The gap between when you provide information and when people need it.
    Make sure your message is timely. Suppose it’s February and there’s four feet of snow on the ground, and you tell me that I need to avoid tempting bears in the spring by taking in my bird feeders. Well, by the time the snow melts and the bears come out, I will long since have forgotten your message. Or, if you tell me where I should be going on vacation in August, but I won’t be planning my vacation until the following March, then there isn’t a chance in hell I’ll plan based on your advice. This is why effective messaging requires constant and consistent two-way conversations.
  2. Relevance: The gap between what they know and what you are telling them.
    Make sure you target someone who cares about what you are saying. If I’m pretty certain that the nearest bear is 500 miles away, then I won’t be listening to your message about bears and bird feeders. If you’re telling me that the vacation you think I should take is three continents away, and I know that getting there is going to cost me more than my mortgage payment, then your message is wasted on me. Or, if you’re a political candidate and explaining your position on an issue I  wasn’t even aware of, and therefore don’t are about, I probably won’t listen.

(Photo by Phil Hearing on Unsplash)

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.