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Who's the target?

Many campaigns are launched to "raise public awareness" or "lead public opinion." In reality, on most serious public issues, there are only a few people who determine the outcome — and public opinion seldom directly triggers their decision to take action. At best, it provides useful cover.

Of course, in a democracy, public officials always applaud public opinion. But they've often found public opinion fickle, fractured and uninformed. Other influencers hold more sway in institutional decision-making. Often, shareholders, regulators, experts and peers are your real target.

This can also be true of health education, social marketing and other kinds of empowerment. The ultimate beneficiaries may not be the decision makers. Or the beneficiaries may be hard to reach and engage. Instead, your target is someone the beneficiary knows better and trusts more than she trusts you.

Knowing your true target is the most important step in communication. Your target determines your medium of communication ("How can we reach them?"). Then, your target and medium determine the nature of your message.

Notice, this is the reverse order of how enthusiastic but unsuccessful campaigns proceed: brainstorm a slogan first, then decide where to put it, then wonder if anybody saw it…

A complication? Even the simplest local campaign usually has more than one audience. The message has to make sense to your sponsor or funder as well as to the target circle around the ultimate beneficiary. And if it's happening in public, the campaign has to make sense to the general public, too.

High-visibility campaigns dealing with sexual risks have often been tragically watered down by competing claims on the message. Instead, peer educators are the best channel. In peer groups, people can use their own language.

Designing a campaign that makes your most critical audience feel you are conversing one-on-one, but is also acceptable — even engaging — to other segments, is harder than it looks. But it can be done. Those are the campaigns that change things.

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