Friday, January 20

Feeling Invulnerable: Clients With Messages

A few weeks ago, we had a discussion with a prospective client. And we decided not to take the account.

It really wasn't a big deal, and not anything to write about. But then I read Roger Dooley's article about Solving The "Invulnerable Customer" Problem and realized that there was a teaching opportunity.

His article touches on why consumers don't always buy products — even when risk exists — because they think they are invulnerable. The example he uses is classic: frequent hand washing (or lack thereof) among people in the medical profession.

There are plenty of other examples too. Invulnerability is why people talk on cell phones while driving, eat too many snacks, and smoke cigarettes. It's why teenagers want to stay up too late, shortchange their study time, and dismiss wearing a jacket when it is cold. It's why clients want to talk about themselves, not address customer grievances, and think spam can be a good thing.

That is not to say some sense of invulnerability is all bad or that worry is better (it's not). But we can still appreciate that overindulgent invulnerability can be as entrenched and irrational as the polar opposite of victimhood. There are, after all, an equal number of people who know their children will always catch a cold and believe every ride to the store will include at least one close call. They may even be more likely to be overinsured and underinvested.

These two opposites make for some fascinating research. However, there was something even more striking about Dooley's article. He offered a solution, one that is as easy as changing the pronoun emphasis in a message.

Considering Pronouns As Part Of The Message. 

The hand washing message solution was right on target. While posting signs that said "Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases" had no effect, an alternate sign that read "Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases" increased hand washing by 10 percent and soap usage by 33 percent.

That is amazing. It's also only one example of how powerful pronoun choices can be, especially if the marketers or copywriters have insight into the environment where the message will be delivered and the current mood of the audience.

It's also why we knew the prospect wasn't a good fit with our firm. He wanted to concentrate on a message that talked about "I" and "you." However, we recognized the current climate suggests people want to hear more about "us" and "them." (Specifically, people want to know what are we going to do as a country, and what can be done to help people who need it.)

Pronoun choices might seem tiny. The impact they can have is huge. Doubly so because there are generally four choices — I, you, we, them. And depending upon the context, product, service, audience, and general attitude, choosing the wrong one can make or break a message.

While picking the right pronoun is reliant on existing circumstances, there are some commonalities that can help make the right choice. Leadership and innovation are more often tied to "I" messages. Transformation and empowerment are often tied to "you" messages. Engagement and empathy are often tied to "we" messages. And perspective and compassion are often tied to "them" messages.

Case in point. The difference between "You Can Change The World" and "We Can Change The World" are miles apart. So are "We Are Helping Them" (an "I" message in plural form) and "They Need Our Help" (an "I" message, structured to place more weight on "Them"). Picking the right one has everything to do with understanding the motivation and mood of the intended audience. In fact, you can even attract certain types of people based on how the messages are framed with which pronouns.

For example, people who gravitate toward "10 Ways To Improve Your Blog" are looking for empowerment whereas people who gravitate toward "10 Secrets I Know About Blogging" are looking for leadership. They are very different propositions. They can attract very different people.

Just for fun, consider pronoun usage while you browse the Web today. Or, if you want to have more fun, take a look at your last ten blog posts or the last ten messages (advertisements, etc.) put out by your organization. Is there any pattern? Have the messages been effective? And if not, could different pronouns be all that separates you from success?

While you look around, always keep in mind that what we communicate is never really about us. It's almost always about them, the people we want to reach. Which, when I really think about it, is why we ultimately passed on the account. It's impossible to win with people who think they're invulnerable, especially if they don't care about the people they want to help.
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