Know Thy Audience

Know Thy Audience

A few days ago, a colleague of mine at the university asked if I could recommend specific messages he could use to craft a local climate campaign on building flood resiliency. I looked at him questioningly while I waited to hear more. The response I received was coupled with a chuckle: “All of this doctoral research and no answer?”

“It depends,” I replied.

Who are you trying to reach? About which specific issues? What action do you want them to take? Are you sure you’re targeting the right audience in the first place? While there may be specific words that resonate with the general public, if you do not understand your specific audiences (as in, the people who need to take action in order move the needle on a particular climate goal), it’s going to be difficult to create messages that reach them.

A fundamental tenet of effective engagement (and marketing) is to ‘Know Thy Audience’. If communicators are trying to build support for climate action, one of the first steps is to get clear on the beliefs of those they seek to engage. Climate Access’ recent guide offers the same advice: begin with what audiences care about. To do that, we must seek to understand what our audiences value, support and are concerned about. Sound easy enough? Perhaps.

Fortunately, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (the organization behind the Climate Change in the American Mind public opinion series and groundbreaking segmentation study Six Americas) has made it easier for us to accomplish this feat by releasing a new interactive mapping tool, the Yale Climate Opinion Maps.

Based on years of national survey data, this interactive mapping tool provides extremely accurate estimates of public opinion about climate change in states, congressional districts and counties across the United States (read more about the data and the methodology behind these estimates in Nature Climate Change). That’s right, it predicts beliefs right down to the county level. It is the first tool of its kind to offer such a specific view of what Americans in discrete geographic areas likely think about several aspects of climate change.

This is significant because public opinion in a community can differ drastically from the national average. For example, while 63% of Americans nationally believe global warming is happening, at the county level this can vary between 43 and 80%. Meaning that while a majority of Americans may believe, there are pockets of majorities that don’t and they could include the audiences you’re trying to connect with.

These opinion maps are a boon to climate communicators for several reasons. Most of us rely on national poll data to target smaller geographic audiences, extrapolating guidance based on the demographics of a particular state or community. We do this because a growing number of climate campaigns are focused at the regional or municipal level and it’s costly and timely to run local polls. 

The maps quickly and easily show (very accurate) estimates of local climate change beliefs, risk perceptions and policy support. I was able to compare differences in support for regulating carbon as a pollutant in my own county versus the national average. Couple this information with level of concern and opinion on scientific consensus, which are both opinion points in Yale’s new maps, and I can begin to tailor my communication campaign around the specific beliefs of my geographic audience.

For example, instead of trying to reach ‘anyone that believes in global warming’, I might direct my communication campaign toward parents in my community about the benefits of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The Yale tool revealed strong county support for setting strict carbon dioxide limits on existing coal-fired plants. Based on this information, I could showcase how moms in my community strongly support adoption of the plan (social norming tactic) because of the avoidance of childhood asthma.

Another interesting revelation in the maps is how beliefs and support are divided within traditionally red and blue states (check out Texas, for example). The range in views suggests there are opportunities to connect with conservatives on climate change, depending on how the issue is framed.

Marketing gurus will agree, the more you spend the time to learn about your target audiences, the more effective your communication campaigns will be. If you want your outreach to resonate, the Yale Climate Opinion Maps are a key tool for success.

image via Yale Project on Climate Change Communication