Strategic Communications: Do the messages work?

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By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, he discusses the concept of “sticky” by illustrating the success of shows such as Sesame Street and Blues Clues.  One of the reasons these shows succeeded was because they created programming that enabled children to understand and remember what they saw – programs that were “sticky.”

Chip and Dan Heath further explore this concept in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, and dissect its elements. Specifically, they claim that a sticky idea needs to be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and emotional, and that they are best depicted by stories (which creates the acronym SUCCES).

Like Gladwell’s book, the Heaths’ book contains numerous examples to support their arguments.  However, one stands out as particularly instructive because it highlights a problem that is continually overlooked.  That is, does your message work?

In a discussion on the importance of appealing to identity, the authors cite the success of the “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign that resulted in a 29% drop in litter on Texas highways in one year and a 72% drop between 1986 and 1990.  This campaign, which featured famous Texans such as Dallas Cowboys players Randy White and Ed Jones, worked so well because it featured people with whom Texans could identify.

However, this campaign was only implemented after several others had failed, causing the state to increasingly spend millions of dollars to stem the litter problem.  Fortunately, the Texas Department of Transportation had an easy metric to use in assessing the efficacy of these campaigns – litter rates – which they could measure periodically.  Unfortunately, in the world of politics, consultants don’t always have the luxury of readily accessible metrics at their disposal.

Hence, we’ve seen numerous examples of political consultants falling into a trap when trying to create “sticky” messages that are entertaining and memorable.  That is, too much emphasis is placed on making the message sticky and not enough emphasis is placed on whether the message works.  That is, unless your message has the desired effect, it doesn’t matter how sticky it is.

Therefore, regardless of the medium you’re using, make sure you identify appropriate metrics to ensure your message is working.  Otherwise, as they say in the industry, you’ll be fishing without a hook.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for The Saint Consulting Group, email eagan@tscg.biz 781.749.7290, etx 7701