Lesson 4: Message and Audience

4.1: Lesson Objectives

Your Success Depends on Developing an Effective Message

You have defined your vision and identified your goals and objectives. You have analyzed and cultivated your leadership strengths, and if you have read the supplement on civic environment, you have also assessed the impact of your surroundings on your work. Now you need to communicate to others: your network and allies, decision-makers, the media, and even your opponents. An effective message is one that resonates with multiple target audiences and gains their support.

What is a Message?

Before you begin, take a moment to ask yourself: What is a message, and why is it important? Think of examples of messages that you have heard activists, politicians or advertisers use: What do you think makes a good message?

A message is a concise and persuasive statement about your goal. It communicates what you want to achieve, why, and how. It includes a specific “ask”: an action or position you want your audience to take.

The purpose of a message is to mobilize other people to support your vision and goal; your message must clearly communicate what you expect or want from your audience.

Your effort will likely involve two kinds of messages – specifically, a comprehensive or overall message that expresses the main vision and goals of the effort, and targeted messages that relate to specific audiences and objectives.

By the end of this lesson, you will have the skills needed to:

  • Develop an effective main message

In developing your main message, you will learn that an effective message should be:

- Memorable and repeatable

- Clear

- Short and concise

- Persuasive and relevant

- Credible

- Action-oriented

  • Identify your target audiences

You may be reaching out to two kinds of audiences.

-Which people have the power to act directly on the issue you are trying to address? This is your primary audience.

-Which people can influence the key actors or shape public opinion to increase your support? This is your secondary audience.

Both are equally important.

  • Target your message to each audience type

To craft persuasive messages, you need to know what moves your different audiences.

-What are their interests and values?

-What is likely to persuades them?

-Are they likely to be supporters or opponents?

You can then frame your message in a way that resonates with their concerns.

4.2: Activist Interviews

Tavaana’s case study on the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 describes the message of the movement for change in Egypt:

Activists strove to spread the message that “We have rights…and we will gain our rights by demanding them.”  They were determined to reclaim Egypt from the Mubarak regime: “This country is our country,” declared Wael Ghonim, “and everyone has a right to this country. You have a voice in this country.”  Indeed, Ghonim’s TV interview played a significant role in outreach; not only did it reinvigorate protesters, it also reached a new audience and won over viewers who had previously felt ambivalent about the movement.

While the Internet, especially Facebook, was a cornerstone of activists’ outreach efforts, they also sprayed graffiti, distributed posters and flyers announcing the January 25 protests, spread the word among friends and family, and even sent teams to ride taxi cabs, where they would discuss the protests on theirphones, knowing the driver was listening and would pass on the information to other riders.  During the five-day Internet shutdown, activists placed an even greater emphasis on in-person outreach, distributing their protest manual in person and warning against putting it online.

Rather than focusing on upscale neighborhoods, protest organizers launched their marches from poor areas, where they divided into two teams, one focusing on one-on-one outreach in cafes, and another that went down streets calling out to people in their apartments to convince them to join the protests. Rather than discuss democracy, they used economic issues to rally support, chanting slogans like, “They eat pigeon and chicken, and we eat beans all the time.”  Starting from alleys, the protesters gathered supporters and momentum, progressing to main streets as their numbers grew.  “Everyone used to say there is no hope, that no one will turn up on the street, that the people are passive,” said Asmaa Mahfouz. “But the barrier of fear was broken!”

In Tavaana’s interview with Ivan Marovic, Marovic describes how the Otpor movement communicated its message to its chosen audiences:

Ultimately, what we wanted to achieve, because our goal was to have the majority of the people voting against Milosevic, and we wanted to have majority of the people getting involved in the general strike that is going to force him to step down – ultimately, we wanted to talk to everybody, and we wanted everybody to be on our side. But we decided to do it step by step.

So in our first step, we wanted to communicate our message to most of the younger people. And there is a clear reason why we did it. First, because we ourselves were young, and since we operated from the Belgrade University…it was the easiest thing to do, to talk to our colleagues at the university.

But there was another reason. Young people are a very powerful motivational force for the society, because you know, everyone has children. And if you want to reach somebody’s parents, the best way to reach parents is through children. So we wanted to have young people on our side because we knew that these young people will influence their parents.

Let me give you an example. If you want to meet somebody who is a minister in the government, you know it’s very difficult because you have to make an appointment and go through all the bureaucracy…But if you want to meet a minister’s son or a minister’s daughter, that is actually much easier. So by first targeting the young people, we managed actually to reach high levels of the government, by actually communicating with their children.

So when the date came and when the general strike was called for, we had actually a lot of sympathizers inside the government, thanks to the fact that their children were directly or indirectly involved with the resistance. So our first target audience was the young people, and then through young people, their parents.

However, we also focused on the lower levels of the society, because in Serbia, like in many countries, politics is fought on the elite level. You have elites in the government, and you have so-called elite dissidents, who are criticizing the regime, who are publishing certain articles and voicing their opposition to the government.

But on the lower levels, people are fighting to survive, and especially in harsh economic circumstances as we had, they don’t have time for politics. And they don’t have time to read all these analyses and letters. So we made sure that we include these people: disenfranchised workers, unemployed, farmers in the countryside. And so we paid a lot of attention to communicating with them and trying to bring them on board and trying to get them involved.

While reviewing these examples, consider the following questions.

  • What was the activist/movement's main message?
  • Why was it effective (or not?)
  • What audiences did the activist/movement seek to reach?
  • Did the activist change her message to appeal to specific audiences?

4.3: Requirements for an Effective Message

An effective message communicates a lot of information in a few sentences. It should explain:

  • What you want to achieve
  • Why you want to achieve it
  • How you propose to achieve it
  • What action you want the audience to take

An effective message must be:

  • Memorable and repeatable – Create a message that can be delivered to an audience through a variety of channels over an extended period of time.
  • Clear – Make sure the audience can clearly identify the issue you are addressing and the solution you propose.
  • Short and concise – Offer a limited number of points.
  • Persuasive and relevant – Create a message that the audience will understand and can relate to.
  • Credible – Make sure that your message is being delivered by a source the audience finds credible.
  • Action-oriented – Make sure the audience knows what to do to help further your cause.

If you want to start drafting your main message, you can complete the section called ''Draft Your Message'' in your activism plan. Or move on to the next section to learn how to identify your different types of audiences.

4.4: Primary and Secondary Audiences

When you are seeking to make change, it is helpful to consider two types of audiences:

  • Primary audiences are the key actors who have the power to act directly on the issue you are trying to address
  • Secondary audiences are those with the power to influence the key actors, or the means to shape public opinion.

There are two important elements to consider when developing a message: what you want to say, and whoyou want to say it to. You will find that what you say will change as you consider who you are talking to andwhy. That is why it is important to spend some time identifying your different target audiences.

When you are seeking to make change, your target audience should include the people or groups who have the power to act directly on the issue you are trying to address. These decision-makers are yourprimary audiences. They typically include people in a position to spend funds or pass laws, such as:

  • Key policy makers
  • International organizations
  • Government
  • Community leaders
  • Business people
  • Organization executives

Messages to your primary audience need to clearly reflect what action(s) you want them to take and why it is in their interest to take such action(s).

There are also people and groups who can influence your primary audience, because the primary audience cares about their views and actions. This is your secondary audience. They typically include people who support or shape the public view towards the primary audiences:

  • Media
  • Associations
  • Public figures and celebrities
  • Voters

Messages to your secondary audience need to clearly identify the problem and the solution; messages must also be persuasive enough to convince your secondary audience to express support for what you are trying to do in a way that influences your primary audience.


As an example, assume that your activism effort is fighting illiteracy among women. A campaign slogancould be:

Increase literacy rates among women: support the new literacy law.

Your goal is the passage of a new law that funds literacy programs for women. Your primary audiencewould include members of Parliament who have the power to pass the law. Your message to them might state:

Increasing literacy rates among women is the key to equality and economic development. Pass the literacy law. Voters will re-elect officials who care about our country.

Your secondary audience would include voters who support the lawmakers’ need to be re-elected. Your message to them might state:

Increasing literacy rates among women empowers women and is a good investment for our community. Women who read get better jobs, and their children are more successful at school. Vote for members of Parliament who support the literacy law.

Do not assume that the primary audience is more important than the secondary audience. The term “primary” does not imply that this is your most important audience. “Primary” just means “the audience that has the ultimate power to change your issue.” It is often easier and more useful to target the secondary audience first.

4.5: Target Your Message

The key to crafting persuasive messages is to appeal to what your target audience cares about. Your message will only resonate with your audience if it connects to their values and concerns. You need to understand what motivates them, and your message should consider why it is in their interest to support your efforts.

How do you adapt your message to your different audiences based on their specific concerns?

Once you have identified whom you need to reach, you need to understand what moves them, in order to frame your message more persuasively. You need to know important information about your audience members, such as:

  • What are their interests and values?
  • What is likely to persuade them?

You will want to understand the values and factors that influence each of these target audiences, so that you can address their concerns and frame your message accordingly.

  • Are they likely to be supporters or opponents?

Among your primary and secondary audiences, you have to keep in mind that while there will be supporters of your issue, there will also be opponents and neutral groups who can be persuaded to become supporters through a good message and strategy.

You can then frame your main message to address more specifically each audience’s concerns.


Consider the example of the women’s literacy campaign with the following message:

Increasing literacy rates among women is good for the country: Support the literacy law today!

The target audiences might include business people, who need more skilled workers to grow their business. The message to them might be:

Increasing literacy rates among women is good for business: Your workforce will be more capable.

Another audience might be parents, who care about their children’s future. A message that might appeal more to them could be:

Increasing literacy rates among women is good for our children: children of literate mothers do better in school.

As for your goal for each group, you need to:

  • Mobilize passive supporters to act.
  • Persuade neutral audiences to become passive supporters. They may not take action, but they will view your own actions positively, and will be less likely to be mobilized by your opponents.
  • Neutralize potential opponents.

In summary: A good activism campaign will have multiple messages for multiple audiences. It will have a main message that states your general campaign goal, and several targeted messages designed to resonate with different audiences.

You should have different messages for your primary audience – those who have the power to directly affect your goals – and your secondary audience – those who influence your primary audience.

Your messages should address the specific concerns and values of the people whom you are trying to influence.

A good message clearly communicates what you want to achieve, how your audience can help you, and why it is in their interest to do so.

4.6: Summary Questions

As you fill out and complete the Message and Audience section of your personal activism plan, consider the following questions:

  • What is my main message? How can I make it memorable?
  • Who are my primary audiences? Who influences my primary audiences?
  • Who are my secondary audiences? Who influences my secondary audiences?
  • What are the concerns of my primary and secondary audiences?
  • How can I convince them that helping achieve my goal is in their best interest?
  • How can I express this information in targeted messages that will inspire action?



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