Lessons from the Field: Targeting Your Audience

Lessons from the Field: Targeting Your Audience

As a companion to the recent Climate Access training session on Using the Six Americas Segmentation, we asked our members to share the main lesson they’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in their climate work and to share experiences using segmentation systems such as 6 Americas. Here is what some of them had to say: 

Laurel Whitney, Pace University

I remember one time I put a Kanye West joke in one of my online articles, which my editor promptly cut out because he didn’t think our readers would get the reference. Writing for an amorphous online audience can be tricky, but there is much less guesswork involved when presenting for an audience made of real people.

I’ve presented to many types of audiences- but most of them can be classified as “general public”, especially if it’s an open lecture that anyone can show up to.  The fact that they are showing up to hear you speak in the first place means they’re at least interested in what you have to say. I’ve worked a lot with climate activists and movement building. We use a scheme very similar to the 6 Americas called the Spectrum of Allies (Ruckus Society/Training for Change). It includes a diagram of a semi-circle with wedges- Active Allies, Passive Allies, Neutrals (Fence-sitters), Passive Opponents, and Active Opponents. The idea is that you’re never going to convince the Active Opponents, but if you can get the other groups to move one wedge over (e.g. convincing someone’s who’s neutral to become a passive ally and so forth), then you can make a lot of progress. If I can classify an audience as one of these pieces, I know better how to craft my information.

But the main lesson I’ve learned is that you don’t always have to include every nugget of information about climate change to captivate an audience. Find information your audience can connect to and emphasize that. If you are talking to artists, show how others have turned facts into art or have made arbitrary numbers visual (e.g. pictures of polar ice melting over time or the size of a balloon indicating what 1 ton of carbon dioxide such as the ones used in Copenhagen). If you don’t know what an audience will respond to, talk less and listen more. Ask them what their concerns and interests are, or incorporate time for discussion, during the talk if possible, instead of after. To be honest, most of the time I’ve had to practice tailoring information is during small introductions explaining my career to strangers, rather than when I’m actually publicly speaking. For example, one time I was getting to know fellow competitors at a horse show; many of them became more interested in climate change when I related it to rising gas and hay prices, with which everyone there was all too familiar.

Only use jargon if you are talking to a very technical audience (and make sure you know which words and phrases are considered jargon!). When I went through media training, we were taught to not even use the word “emissions”, but instead replace it with the word “pollution”.

In the end, reaching an audience is more so an exercise of understanding and getting inside their head. But don’t ask me how to convince my relatives at holidays.

Juli Niemann, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I didn’t use the 6 Americas, although was aware of it, but went for a specific culture.  We have a refuge in Las Vegas, NM that is predominately Hispanic but  few Hispanic families (except employees with their families) come to the refuge.  We wanted to reach that audience.  We contacted the Hispano Chamber of Commerce in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and started from there.  

Also the Hispanic families tend to include extended families, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandfathers, etc. So we took the grandmother as the leader of a group, that would tell stories to the children and pass down their legacy and the changes they see coming.  We never used the words “Climate change” but talked about how we did things when grandma was a girl, and what wisdom she had learned.  

This ended up being a series of panels that told about the areas they were seeing with a saying from Abuelita (grandmother) about her childhood.  This would let the visiting grandma embellish on the story of growing up in the areas and the changes she has seen over the years, and what that has meant to her.  

To attract the local population we sent out flyers announcing a “Concert For the Birds” by mail.  This method was the one mentioned by the Hispano Chamber of Commerce.  Then when they come out for the concert we can direct the family to the short loop trail with these panels, and while they are in the visitor center, promote the environmental education programs we offer to schools and try to get the families involved that way as well.

Kat Friedrich, Science Is Everyone’s Story

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

Brian Ettling, Crater Lake National Park

For my climate change ranger evening program at Crater Lake National Park, my audience is a cross section of the 6 Americas.  For the disengaged and cautious in my audience, I first define what is climate change and how it is happening in the national parks.  I then focus on how it is impacting Crater Lake with the lake surface temperature rising, pikas retreating up to higher elevations, mountain pine beetles surviving warmer and shorter winters to attack our White Bark Pine Trees, and our diminishing snow pack.  For the Alarmed, Concerned, and even Doubtful and Dismissive in the audience, I show the actions that Crater Lake is taking by using hybrid vehicles, investing in solar energy, using low-emission public trolleys, and carbon-offset stickers.  I then challenge all segments of my audience to hold the park management’s feet to the fire to insist that we fully carry through on these actions.  I ask them to be tough on us, look over our shoulder, and hold us accountable to do the right thing on climate change.  

For my Toastmasters speeches, I targeted the large percentage of Doubtful and Dismissive in my audience in one speech in November 2011, called “It’s easy to be green.”  I did not mention climate change, carbon footprints, Al Gore, saving the planet, or anything that would offend their conservative worldview.  I strictly talking about how going green is $green$.  How weatherizing your home and reducing your energy costs saves you money.  The folks in my audience who openly reject climate change loved my speech.  They told me how it connected with them ,and this Toastmasters group voted me as the “Best Speaker” for this speech at that meeting.

When I speak at presentations to Concerned and Alarmed, such as a recent Sierra Club presentation, climate change communications class I taught this past weekend or presentations to the St. Louis Ethical Society, I mention to the Alarmed collective actions they can take RIGHT NOW. First, I recommend joining Citizens Climate Lobby to learn how to effectively lobby their Congressional Representative on climate change.  Second, I recommend joining the 350.org Fossil Free campaign to petition their alma mater and local college to divest their endowment funds from fossil fuels.  Third, I recommend joining the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to wean ourselves off of coal-powered energy that would cause a huge reduction in local and national greenhouse emissions. Finally, I mention Sierra Club’s 100 Days of Climate Legacy Campaign to encourage citizens to write to President Obama for specific executive actions he can take without Congressional action to reduce the threat of climate change.  

Susan Guy, Iowa Interfaith Power & Light:

The mission of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light is to engage and equip people of faith to become leaders in addressing the environmental and social justice consequences of climate change. Our signature program is Cool Congregations, an Earth stewardship program that teaches participants how to become more energy efficient in their homes and places of worship as a practical solution to global warming pollution.

 While we do have a specific target audience – the faith community – we have not used a specific segmentation system such as the Six Americas. However, informally I would say that there are three audience segments that we tend to work with repeatedly: the alarmed, the concerned, and to a lesser degree the cautious. This is not due to any targeting on our side, but because these are the audiences that tend to show up to our workshops and events.

Working with those who are already engaged in the issue is certainly welcome, and we continue to encourage them to move up the ladder of engagement. We ask them to share the program and information in their congregations and to become advocates for energy policy at the local, state, and federal level. Bigger challenges for us are to target our messages for those who are cautious and to move the unconcerned from being completely disengaged on the issue.

 One of the main lessons we have learned is the benefit of being able to use faith language to frame climate change, which gets beyond the political and economic conversations. To connect people in a different way with creation care, we use four questions in our Cool Congregations workshops:

  • What is it you love about the earth?
  • What concerns you about Climate Change?
  • What is your personal spiritual motivation to do something about it?
  • What does your faith tradition call you to do about it?
By moving the conversation to the moral and ethical issues surrounding climate change, we hope to make the issue more personal. Once hearts are engaged with minds we can work together towards solutions in the interest of the common good.

Alejandro Grajal, Chicago Zoological Society

During summer 2011 we surveyed a large sample of visitors at 15 United States zoos and aquariums. One of the primary goals of our study was to explore how the proportions of zoo and aquarium visitors across the Global Warming’s Six Americas segments compare to the proportions among the general public.  The results showed that zoo and aquarium visitors are receptive audiences for climate change education (see results at http://clizen.org/survey). Compared to the general public, the top two audience segments “concerned” and “alarmed” comprise 64% of zoo and aquarium visitors, compared to 39% in the general American public.  We also found that visitors in the alarmed and concerned segments tend to engage in various conservation behaviors more so than other visitor segments.

We paired the Global Warming’s Six Americas segmentation survey with a second survey primarily focused on behaviors. These results showed us that the learning needs of such positive audiences are not primarily about the science or the threats about climate change. Zoo and aquarium audiences largely acknowledge that climate change is a present threat and that it is human-made.  Instead, these audiences want to do more to address climate change, yet they perceive barriers to doing so, particularly ignorance about what behaviors will be effective. Therefore these audiences are very receptive to learning opportunities that focus on solutions, particularly those actions that are most effective, and those that can be done at the personal level, such as consumer behaviors.  Using this information we need to change our approach to climate change education at zoos, focusing on solutions while trying to overcome the paralyzing pessimism that comes with a problem of such gigantic magnitude. Zoos and aquariums are visited by nearly 175 million visitors annually, so moving a large portion of such audiences to higher engagement and actions on climate change can have a significant impact.

Andreas Huber, European Institute for Energy Research

I’ve worked with the French Sinus Milieus – we analyzed their carbon footprint and then suggested targeted intervention strategies to shape those milieus’ consumption patterns – which was a very interesting experience, but we also had to face limits. The typology was not very discriminative in terms of average consumption per Milieu, so there is definitely a need to develop Lifestyle typologies that better take into account the energy/carbon dimension. There is a strong demand for such segmentations from both utilities (I am working with EDF, a major French company) and policy makers, so this is a huge research field to work on, and it’s on my agenda.

Chris Carnavale, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

Know your audience, but allies are sometimes found in unexpected places.



Dave Finnigan, Climate Change Is Elementary:

I work exclusively with elementary students, their teachers and parents….My program was designed based on the Diffusion of Innovations model pioneered by my mentor, Professor Everett Rogers  I have used it to identify the people who are likely to take action in any community and to get them moving forward in spite of the anger, disinformation and intransigence of the doubtful and dismissive deniers.

I start the day speaking before school for 30 minutes in the media center (library) to all the teachers and the principal. I find they are for the most part are Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious or at worst Disengaged. I very infrequently find a teacher who is Doubtful or Dismissive. If they are there, I assume that the reason I do not hear from them is because they look around the room and realize that they are outgunned by their peers, and by the PTA activities chair and the principal who have agreed to have me in the school for the day, and are themselves at least Concerned and are modeling the thought leadership for the faculty.

Next I go to the gym or cafeteria and work with the kids all day, one grade level at a time helping them to uncover the problem at their own level, using exploration and interaction. We end up with an all-school assembly in the last hour of the day where we discuss how we are headed for an inevitable clean green future either after the fuel runs out or before. The kids get to choose if they want that clean and green future SOONER or LATER. They always choose SOONER. The kids all learn about the problem in this class and all-school assembly and by the time the day is done, we have only Alarmed and Concerned kids. They run home and tell their parents about the problem and the obvious solution, which is to get off of coal, oil and natural gas and Shift To Other Power As Soon As Possible (STOP ASAP).

That same evening the parents come to school with their kids. We get 30 to 50 percent back, which is huge! The parents run the gamut themselves from Alarmed to Disengaged, with very few who are Doubtful or Dismissive showing up at all. Those who return in the evening are the self-selected parents who care and they are my allies for the project which is designed to bring the entire school and the entire community to action. Together with their kids each family comes up with a Family Sustainability Checklist of all the things they promise to do to reduce their carbon and water footprints. They take a pledge to do all the things on their lists before the kids graduate from high school, which gives them 7 to 12 years to do them all. They usually include the easy stuff like buying LEDs, putting flow restrictors on showers, and recycling. But they may also include: Install solar hot water, install solar PV on the roof, buy a hybrid or electric car, raise our own vegetables. We end the evening by getting a Green Team of volunteers to step forward to lead the school to the coming clean and green future.

Because of the way we have structured the program we do not directly confront the Doubtful or the Dismissive, as they are toxic to the results and we do not need them to succeed. We do not want them or their energy in the room. If they show up and start spouting the Inhofe/Limbaugh party line all the rest of the parents call them on it. They end up slinking out of the room realizing that their input is not wanted or acceptable to the self-selected crowd of caring families.