Moving the Needle and Finding Common Ground – Berlin’s Theory of Change

The concept of persuasive marketing

It hasn’t been a secret for some time now, that marketers use principles of psychology when seeking ways to connect with audiences. It’s always felt a bit shameful or nefarious to think about this, but really, any effort to connect with someone needs to be rooted in sound principles of human need and connection.

While using this to sell something can be effective, when it comes to our work – helping clients connect with the hearts and minds of humans on issues of public interest – it’s a non-negotiable. We need to understand what makes people tick, and how that lines up (or doesn’t) with our clients’ objectives if we’re to do our work.

What we’ve learned, through years of research and application, is that to really capture the hearts and minds of the human beings in our community, and build the constituencies that our clients need, our job is to dig down to find the common ground. It’s not about pitting audiences against each other, but working to help find the shared spaces.

The model

When it comes to moving the needle on issues of public interest, there’s a lot of research out there that should guide one’s approach to any given audience – so much that it can feel like a daunting task just to pick a strategy.  Our ongoing exploration of all that research has helped us build an internal working theory of change and how to move people’s hearts and minds on social issues. It’s not perfect – nothing of this nature is, because humans are all unique and weird in their own way – but we’ve used it to change the public narrative on all kinds of issues in our community for an array of clients.

What I share here is the basics of our framework. It’s worth noting, though, that we built this in a social services context, but have applied it to issues as complex as government energy efficiency programming, commercial property tax advocacy and presentation of complex medical practices and funding frameworks. While the details about what defines each audience segment change, the foundations of this theory remain the same.

Reduced to its core, our theory of change for communicating to the public on social issues is this:

We’re all distinct human beings, with a complex and intertwined set of beliefs on how the world should be, and how everyone should treat each other. However, and at the risk of greatly overgeneralizing, most people’s value systems can be roughly plotted at some point on the following continuum:

Helping others
Self sufficiency

People further to the left side of the continuum are quite often aligned with the political left, and those further to the right are quite often aligned with the political right.

What does this look like?

Think of the continuum as comprising five roughly equal-sized groupings of people within society – about 20% per group.

Groups 1 and 2, the first two on the left (roughly 40% of people), can generally be counted on to support the allocation of public resources to social equity issues, regardless of the issue. 

Whereas group 5, the furthest group on the right (roughly 20% of society), does not support increasing public spending on social equity issues and persuading them otherwise is not impossible but can be pretty tricky and very resource intensive.

This leaves groups 3 and 4 as “up for grabs”; they have the potential to be persuaded on social issues. Messaging on social matters should target these groups’ value systems. This approach increases the likeliness that they will be receptive to the messaging, therefore ensuring we see the greatest return on investment. 

The messaging

One of the benefits of targeting groups 3 and 4 is that the persuasive messaging to them is also compelling to groups 1 and 2. It’s like watering two plants with one hose, a win-win situation.

Through our work, we have found that two kinds of messages are persuasive to groups 1 and 2. The people in these groups are big-hearted, compassionate people who believe that we all have a responsibility to each other.  Messages that tug at the heartstrings about the harrowing plight of the poor are persuasive to them.  Along with heartstring messages, strengths-based messages are also compelling to these groups. Strengths-based messages are forward-looking and focus on success, possibility and systems’ power to effect change.

People in groups 3 and 4 are typically not as moved by the heartstring messages as the first groups but they are very receptive to strengths-based messaging. They love an argument about how things can change, and the success and potential that we and they stand to realize should we move forward together. They are less ideological in their positions (be it progressive or conservative ideology), so this reasonable, performance-based messaging resonates well with them. They appreciate logic and like to be part of something that makes sense, while shying away from strong, inflexible or ideological positions.

How does this come all together?

So, how to you use this to build a community of interest around your issue?  Ultimately, and maybe most importantly, strengths-based messaging, in all its incarnations and forms, is what you need to use if you’re looking to broaden your audience beyond the segmentation that “be nice” or “be independent” separates people into. That facile and limiting dichotomy of right vs. left can work if you’re a politician looking to leverage anger or fear to activate your base – but in our ongoing quest for hearts and minds, we’ve learned that there are better ways to connect with humans.

As is often the case in our work, the magic comes where needs intersect, whether between the government and community, between different communities of interests or between the influential stakeholders in your stakeholder map.

That common ground is truly what can win you those hearts and minds.