Why Isn’t My Audience Listening?

road traffic street sign

You’ve been there. You put together what you think is an outstanding piece of copy but it seems to land with a dud when you publish it. Your boss or client is happy with it (probably because they wrote most of it!) but you get very little return in terms of awareness, attitude and action.


Among the many possible reasons, let’s focus on one: removing barriers.

The Barriers

Barriers are things that stand between your message and the audience. It can include a social context, your audience’s history and feelings about your organization, or their own preconceptions about the topic based on other messages they’ve received. Barriers also include the plethora of messages we each receive on a daily basis – something like 10,000 a day now. Deciding which message to pay attention to takes brainpower and our minds will sift out the uninteresting or irrelevant.

So how do you remove barriers? By being creative in your message, relevant to your audience, and smart about preconceptions.

The Creative Solution

A message that uses an approach or language that is unexpected but interesting is more likely to get through. Think about the ads you like. Mostly likely, they didn’t just put their message out there directly. “Buy our product!” Instead, they enticed, triggered, attracted or surprised you in some way. In fact, a great exercise is to recall your favorite ads, look them up on the internet, and study them for how their creative approach worked on you.

Remember to be brief (human attention span is now less than eight seconds), focused (more than one message means all your messages may be forgotten), and speak in the language your audience understands and relates to.

Relevance is in the eyes of the beholder

You have to get your audience to care and see something in it for them in order to pay attention to your message. We did a campaign in 2020 where we needed air travelers to get a passport for new ID requirements. We researched our audience and learned that they didn’t want a silly, light-hearted campaign. They wanted it straight and serious. So, we used the emotion of fear to tell them that if they didn’t pay attention they might miss their next flight. Follow-up messages soothed the fear as we gave them a solution to a problem they didn’t know they had!

Remember WSIC and WIFM: Why Should I Care and What’s In It For Me?

Preconceptions re-conceived

You can use someone’s preconceptions as a way to reach your audience. Most people think of government as stodgy and overly serious. We at the Oregon Department of Transportation decided to be whimsical and humorous in some of our messages. Government with a sense of humor? That’s unexpected and turns a preconception into interest.

To overcome a view that is contrary to the truth, focus on shared interests and values. For our distracted driving campaign, we used the values of safety, relationships, and reaching goals to try to move attitude and behavior away from using a mobile device while driving.

Remember above all that getting your audience to listen takes research, creativity, hard work and going against the grain.

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