Charlotte Beckett: It's time to ditch the stereotypes

Only charities that thoroughly understand their audiences can succeed in an age in which individuals ignore communications and actively opt out of them, writes our columnist

Charlotte Beckett
Charlotte Beckett

Unilever made headlines during the 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity by launching a commitment to stamp out female stereotypes in adverts across all of its brands. This pledge came after the discovery that progressive campaigns play better with the target audience. No surprises there. Setting aside the reasons for doing this (in the words of Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed, "this is not a moral issue; it’s an economic issue"), the action is to be applauded. 

But it’s not enough to change the creative. We also need to change the way we define our audiences. Unilever is focusing on female stereotypes because its products are targeted primarily at women, who of course all act in the same way. Just as millennials do. Or those living in Scotland. Or parents. Or donors.  

Focusing on the "who" and "what" is useful. But looking behind that information to the "why" is where the value lies. We need to define behaviours and understand the drivers of those behaviours if we really want to build effective, long-lasting relationships.    

Giving is a personal act, one that mostly done in private. In his 2011 paper, Sander van der Linden of Princeton University looked at its key drivers, concluding that personal and moral norms were more of a driver than social norms, even when the act of donating was observable by others.  

To change our supporters’ behaviour, we need not only to describe it, but also to understand it. We need to analyse why people really do what they do, rather than why they think they do it. We are not rational beings, and no decision is made in isolation. Our decisions are influenced by our personalities, beliefs, experiences and expectations (internal influences) and by the social and cultural environment in which we live and work (external influences). Beyond pure demographics, behavioural segmentation – sorting your audiences based on commonalities in what drives behaviour – gives a far more detailed picture.  

NPC’s 2013 segmentation work, as part of its Money For Good UK research, is a great starting point. But as individual organisations we need to observe, listen and talk to our supporters. We need to look at individuals and groups. We need to analyse both verbal and non-verbal cues, actions and emotions to understand why people support the cause and why they support it in the way they do, be that by volunteering, fundraising or campaigning. 

NPC’s research also found that donors would be willing to give more if charities were better at communicating with them. Putting communications in front of audiences based purely on age or gender doesn’t mean your message will get through. The continued rise of digital and the big data revolution mean we have access to behavioural data that can be used to target people with the right message through the right channel at the right time in their decision-making cycle. Changing behaviours is not a one-off hit. 

As our audiences’ behaviours change, we need to adjust our segmentation models and evolve our messages, campaigns and interventions. Charitable behaviour is, according to 2010 research by Rosen and Sims, a habit-forming, learned behaviour. But changing behaviours takes planning. In an age when individuals not only ignore communications but actively opt out of them, only organisations that thoroughly understand their audiences can succeed.

Charlotte Beckett is a freelance digital strategist and consumer behaviour specialist

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