“Awareness is not influence” – yet sometimes it is

March 9, 2016

Marketing, communications and campaigning 101 tells us that awareness is only a first step preceding things like “influence” and “action”. This makes sense. If the end goal is to sell something or win an election, for instance, awareness is only relevant in that it helps to subsequently drive the relevant action (purchasing or voting, in this case.)

Marketers have forever needed to prove what comes beyond awareness. Their various sales funnels display how a prospect or customer should be made aware and then driven to purchase (and keep purchasing).

In corporate communications, our end goal is less tangible. It’s often “reputation” which is not as clear-cut as sales. Until recently, we weren’t expected to measure anything much except perhaps vanity metrics like clippings, social media followers or website hits. Hence why marketers scoff at how vacuous we are.

In public affairs, the corporate communications discipline I know best, where the end goal is affecting legislation, there was even less impetus to measure anything of value.

Change is afoot. Methods for measuring reputation are becoming ubiquitous. Single audience corporate communications disciplines like public affairs and investor relations are especially easy to tie to an end goal: regulation and investment respectively. Meanwhile, purse strings are being tightened and procurement folk are demanding proof of impact. Showing real business value through smart measurement beyond awareness is becoming the norm in corporate communications.

Overall, this is a good thing. It’ll make communications output more effective and communicators more accountable. And it should help keep communications charlatans / snake oil peddlers out of work.

And yet. Purists will scoff but there are times where there can be major, intangible value in un-measurable communication.

There are countless companies, whose products are contentious, that have damaging regulation imposed on them and lose their license to operate to varying degrees because they are quiet on their issues. Sometimes they deserve what they get because their products are disagreeable (polluting, unhealthy etc.) Sometimes the scrutiny helps them improve business practices and even discontinue the nasties. Clearly, this is a good thing.

Sometimes, issues are more nuanced. Think GMOs or certain chemicals. Yet because of a culture of reticence or fear of litigation, producers have communicated very little and allowed the media and public narrative to be shaped purely by opponents. There is no notion that there is any grey area; silence is equated with an admission of guilt.

Were they to be loud and proud, such companies would engender some level of legitimacy merely through communicating. In a way, what they say matters little. Behavioural science is at play more than message. Recipients are likely to think that the mere fact that a company is willing to communicate may mean they have less to hide. It may not win people over immediately. It may not lead to an immediate rational “action” in a customer journey map. But it might generate grey area where there previously was none. Which in turn might make regulators who are on the fence explore the issue more deeply. It may make a company less likely to be top of an activist’s target list as that they’d likely fight back. In short, it may help it avoid overly damaging regulation, possibly years down the line.

In an age of measurement mania, selling something this vague is tricky. But we should not entirely discount the value of communications that is not immediately measurable.

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