behavior change, life in general, strategy

Inspirations favour the prepared mind (part 2)

Few weeks ago, I received an email inviting me to give a short talk on “the process of creating ideas, campaigns, or innovations”. I’m a bit baffled because I don’t see myself as an “idea creator”. I see myself more as a problem solver.

I’m elaborating the content of my talk in three posts. This is the second post, and it is about a new habit that gets us better at changing behaviour.


Most of marketing problems are about changing the way people behave. Nevertheless, when it comes to advertising, most of my clients focus on changing people’s beliefs or perceptions.

Why is this so? The saying “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done” explains it. Measuring changes in perceptions is easy. Measuring changes in consumers’ buying behaviour is much more difficult —and it’s not the same with measuring fluctuations in sales.

It is hard to measure consumers’ actual buying behaviour in Indonesia. This is because to properly do so, marketers will need data from a longitudinal research that involves making consumers unfailingly register whatever stuff they buy within a period of time (at least for half a year). This is a complicated and expensive. There are not many marketing research agencies in Indonesia that offer this study to manufacturers; and there are not many manufacturers who subscribe to this service.

Enough with the digression. Let’s get back on the habit that gets us better at changing behaviour.

Second habit: remember the elephant

Like the previous post, this new habit will force us to leave the old habit that has been deeply ingrained. Let’s start with revisiting that old habit before we kick it off.

Most of us still believe that to change behaviour (e.g. buying Brand X more often instead of Brand A), we have to firstly change the relevant perceptions (Brand X cleans better with less effort than the cheaper Brand A), and then change the relevant feelings (from indifferent to reassured with Brand X).

This is evidenced by clients insisting on making ads “to educate the consumers” or “highlight the functional benefits” or to “include the logical persuasions”. But then again we still see plenty of people who smoke, or live sedentarily, or text while driving, or have astronomical credit card debt with no savings. Knowledge rarely turns into behaviour.

Let’s discard the old habit of thinking the linear link of “belief→ feeling → behaviour” . Instead, let’s start the new habit of remembering the elephant.

This habit comes from the framework written in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Difficult by Dan and Chip Heath. What’s genius about this framework is the writers explain it clearly through a powerful metaphor: the rider and the elephant.

The rider represents deliberate thinking that is deep, extensive, elaborate, effortful, and thus exhausting (for example, deciding which mortgage to take). Yes, the rider represents the rational human with its advanced frontal cortex.

But the rider is tiny and weak compared to the huge and stark elephant. The elephant represents all the subconscious processes that are shallow, spontaneous, slapdash, effortless, and a default mode of how we all behave.

The old habit of thinking “belief→ feeling → behaviour” ignores the forceful existence of the elephant. This picture illustrates the rider and the elephant metaphor to understand human behaviour.

The rider and the elephant metaphor for changing behaviour. From Switch by Dan and Chip Heath.

The rider and the elephant metaphor for changing behaviour.
From Switch by Dan and Chip Heath.


Direct the Rider

Directing the rider successfully is to come up with a map that makes the rider feels it’s an easy to get to an clearly-defined place. It is about breaking down a long and abstract journey (“eat healthily”) into sets of short trips, each with a very clear destination that’s easy to visualise (“change full cream milk into 2% milk”).

There is a good example of a successful effort to change people’s behaviour from Indonesia. For the longest time, wen have been bombarded with propaganda to “preserve batik as our cultural heritage”. This poster aptly illustrates the point:


By aforlife from DevianArt.


Yet the significant change only took place when somebody or some institution started with a very clear and simple direction of “please wear batik to work on Fridays”. The lofty but unclear agenda of *preserving our cultural heritage” was turned into an attainable small request most people could follow easily.

A poster from Keluarga Mahasiswa ITB.

A poster from Keluarga Mahasiswa ITB.


Move The Elephant

Moving the elephant is about using emotions and social identity as the forces that compel the primal side in each of us.

Below is a video about using fanaticism towards a soccer club to boost the participation rate of organ donation. In Brazil, families of the deceased often will not authorise organ donations without written wills. This program overcame this barrier by practically offering an instant way to record the donor’s wish. This program managed to increase organ donation participation rate by 54% in a year.


Another example is a video to use how emotions are used to solve a real and dire problem: preventing children with cancers from quitting the painful chemotherapy process. I’m eagerly waiting for the report on the success rate of this program.


Shape The Path

Shaping the path is about tweaking the environment. We have the tendency to underestimate the importance of environment, while at the same time overestimate the personality factor, in influencing the way other people behave. It’s human, and it’s called fundamental attribution error.

Previously I have shown examples on ideas that tweak the environment, so it’s much easier to follow the prescribed behaviour, like registering oneself to be a bone marrow donor with a kit included in bandage pack (here), or creating an app that makes it impossible to print out a file (“save as .WWF, here).

Another famous example is how schools in New York City tried to improve the grade of students by giving them rewards in terms of talk-time and other content for mobile phones. The initial results were encouraging, unfortunately this program was discontinued due to lack of funding in 2008. This is the video.



On the next instalment I will talk about other little habits that prepare my mind, so I believe I am in a better position to catch inspirations. So stay in touch.

life in general, strategy

Inspirations favour the prepared mind (part 1)

Few weeks ago, I received an email inviting me to give a short talk on “the process of creating ideas, campaigns, or innovations”. I’m a bit baffled because I don’t see myself as an “idea creator”. I see myself more as a problem solver. 

I decided to talk about habits that help us get better at solving problems. I will elaborate the content of my talk in this blog, in three consecutive posts. The first one is about the habit of staying longer with the problem.


Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

I want to correct the thinking that creative problem solvers and innovators have the magical ability getting profound insights and magical inspirations all the time. Nobody who works in any creative commercial enterprises can can afford to hold on to this myth. Every project has schedules and deadlines, and nobody is allowed to take their own sweet time to wait for inspirations to strike.

Someone wise once said, “Chances favour the prepared mind” (it was actually Louis Pasteur, who discovered bacterial fermentation and vaccination). I want to steal from him. I posit that inspirations favour the prepared mind.

I’m not saying that insights and inspirations are not necessary in creative thinking. Obviously we need inspirations, from big eureka moments or little revelations that widen our views. But we can hike up our chance to catch inspirations by preparing our mind. We have to turn those preparations into habits. This is how we can be creative at any given time.

I want to share with you my habits when I work to solve problems. I hope you want to try adopting them. Those habits are not so difficult because I will show you the techniques an methods. What’s going to be harder is you must stop your old habits that have been deeply ingrained inside you.

First habit: stay longer with the problem

I have written before why this habit is important (here). To start this habit, we have to kick off those reflexes to immediately seek for solutions. Believe me, jumping into solutions is a hard habit to break. I still have to remind my colleagues to not do it.

Some people are reluctant to stay longer with the problem because they think it will paralyse them. They expect they will be overwhelmed by too many questions. Worry not: there are techniques that are easy to learn. These techniques or methods make staying longer with the problem a painless and fruitful effort.

The methods I use come from this short but very useful book, Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe. I have written before on why I highly recommend it here. In a very accessible way, the book explains the steps and the methods via simple stories and clear examples.

For example, Ken outlines the steps we take when solving a problem. Please notice that it’s only on step three that we start thinking of solutions, in the form of action plans. See below: 

Steps in solving problems.
From Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.


Watanabe proposes many useful and practical tools that help us along the process. For example, here’s a yes-no diagram that helps us identify the root cause of the problem. In this example, the one who has a the problem is a school band who has held free rock concerts in their school on Saturdays. They want to have more people coming to their free concerts. See below.

A yes-no diagram to help us identify why there are not many people coming to see free rock concerts.   From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

A yes-no diagram to help us identify the root cause of a problem.
From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.


Another tool is logic tree. This is useful to help us understand the situation, or to broaden our view to see possible solutions. Here’s an example of a logic tree used by a company that produces bottled spice, like bottled ground pepper.

A logic-tree to help us think about ways to increase the number of pepper that comes out of the bottle in one shake. From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

A logic-tree to help us think about solutions.
From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.


I’ve mentioned before that some people fear they will be paralysed by so many questions. Watanabe gives us another tool that helps us to manage those questions and take us closer to the root cause. The tool is a simple table with columns of

  • “Issues /questions”
  • “Hypothesis : our guessed answer to each question
  • “Rationale”: we come up with that hypothesis
  • “Analysis/actions: what we will do to test our hypothesis
  • “Source of information”: where we will get that data or info to test our hypothesis.

See below for the example related to the low attendance in free rock concert problem.

Problem-solving design plan. From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

Problem-solving design plan.
From Problem Solving 101: A Small Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe.

There are many more tools and techniques you can read in this invaluable book (go get this book, it’s truly worth the money and effort). But I hope you get the gist. With the right tools and techniques, staying longer with the problem is not going to be painful. So start the habit and use the tools and techniques.


That’s the first habit that prepares our mind to catch inspirations, and not just wait for them to strike. On the next post, I will talk about preparing our mind to solve problems related to changing the way people feel and behave. Watch this space. Yes, I really push myself to write in this blog more often.

advertising, strategy

Using celebrities in advertising: does it pay off?

This is what we want to do when clients tell us they insist on having celebrities in their ads.

This is what we want to do when clients tell us they insist on having celebrities in in their ads.

We advertising agency workers hate, hate, hate, hate it when clients mandate us to use celebrities in their ads –even before everyone agrees on what the real problem that needs to be solved is.

As a strategist, I personally abhor this “putting the cart before the horse” thinking habit. My colleagues from the creative team feel using celebrities will castrate their creativity. Suits don’t usually look forward to wheeling and dealing with celebrities and their entourage.

Signing up celebrities to endorse a brand comes with a certain price tag. The more famous or in demand a celebrity is, the higher the price she will command. This means using celebrities in advertising is a relatively major investment. Assuming they behave rationally, clients will only invest on celebrities if they believe it will “pay off”. To reinforce this belief, many of them will point out how obsessed Indonesians are with celebrities –look at those high-rating infotainment shows on TV!

Do we have evidence to support the belief that “using celebrities in advertising pays-off”?

Unfortunately I don’t have specific data for Indonesia. I don’t know if any local advertisers have done rigorous undertakings to validate this. Even if they have, they probably will not share it with me. I also could not find open-access studies that measure the impact of celebrity endorsement in Indonesian market.

What I’m going to do here now is to put forward literature from the industry about the effectiveness of using celebrities in advertising. I get them from, a global online database of ideas and evidence in marketing. The data and evidence that I got are not specific to Indonesia, but I believe it’s possible to intelligently extrapolate. I will try to answer the following questions: Does using celebrities in advertising really work? If it’s not always the case, what’s the best way to do so?


Does using celebrities in advertising really work? Does it pay-off? To answer, let’s be clear on what we mean by “work” and “pay-off”.

There are two ways to assess if an advert “works”. Firstly is by seeing it’s immediate effects to the viewers. In this case, the discussions revolve around whether the ad is noticeable, enjoyable, or emotionally-involving enough for the viewers. Can the viewers recall from which brand the ad is?

Millward Brown, a global market research company, has been in the business of testing advertising to measure immediate effects for years and years. From their global database, in 2007 they conducted a comparative study to see if using celebrities help ads perform better. The results are interesting:

  • There is very little overall difference between the performance of ads with celebrities versus those without.
  • Ads with celebrities tend to be slightly better enjoyed than those without.
  • In some countries (notably US), ad with celebrities are more emotionally involving.
    Yet this is not the case in countries where celebrity ads are more common –I extrapolate this is what happens in Indonesia.
  • In Japan, viewers can’t really recall from which brands the celebrity ads are. The study estimates this is because there a celebrity usually endorses so many brands. Again, I extrapolate that the same thing happens here in Indonesia.

From this perspective we can feel that using celebrities in advertising doesn’t guarantee success when measured by immediate effects on viewers. But what about their impact on business?

This leads us to the second way to assess advertising effectiveness, i.e. by measuring its business effects. Business effects don’t only mean increasing sales result. They also include growing or defending market share, increasing market penetration, increasing consumer loyalty, etc.

Elberse and Verleun (2012) came up with a mathematical model and test it against the data in US. To cut a long and complex story short, they came up with the conclusion:

Signing the kinds of endorsers that featured in this study on average generates a 4% increase in sales which corresponds with around $10 million in additional sales annually –and nearly a 0.25% increase in  stock returns.”
—Elberse and Verleun, 2012

So using celebrities in advertising does pay-off. Nevertheless, this study comes with a big caveat. The study made and tested the model based on celebrity athletes in US, where sports fandom is a huge part of culture. This is something that we don’t have here. Only very few athletes become celebrities in Indonesia.

Fortunately we have other data from Institute of Practitioners of Advertising (IPA) in UK. IPA has been rewarding advertising effectiveness awards in UK and from other countries for more than 30 years. They keep a database of the winners’ case studies. From that database, we can see that

“Campaigns featuring stars have done disproportionately well in the IPA Effectiveness Awards.”
Pringle, 2012

Does this mean ad agency people’s reluctance to use celebrities in adverts is unjustified? Well, not so fast. IPA Effectiveness Awards database is filled with winners, the elite group of highly profitable advertising. There are also winning adverts that don’t use celebrities, and there are celebrity ads that don’t belong in this database. For the latter, there are two possible explanations: some celebrity ads are simply not effective, or that some are actually effective but their case studies are not submitted to effectiveness awards. Therefore it is misleading to conclude that merely using celebrities will make adverts effective.

So what makes an advert effective to bring intended business effects? Combing through the database of effective advertising, it turns out that the best predictor of advertising effectiveness is fame and emotional responses.

“…Fame means more than just awareness. It’s not enough for people to just know your brand. You want people to be actively thinking about your brand, and, crucially, talking about it.”

“Fame campaigns are much more the most profitable —almost twice as profitable as other forms of advertising.”
Binet, 2012

“Campaigns that aim to get the brand and its marketing talked about are particularly effective. Most campaigns of this nature are highly emotional, but the additional element of “talk value” seems to boost effectiveness even further.”

“The more emotions dominate over rational messaging, the bigger the business effects. The most effective advertisements of all are those with little or no rational content.”
Binet and Field, 2009

What makes fame campaigns? Featuring famous people in them is not one of the characteristics.

These are the hallmark of fame campaigns (Wood, 2010):

  • They elicit intense emotional response, high levels of happiness (elevation, awe, or bliss) and some surprise.
  • They don’t rely on language to generate emotional responses.
  • They often use humour, but don’t rely on it entirely.
  • They don’t feel like “typical ads”, more like sponsored entertainment. They are very memorable and distinctive. But if they are pre-tested, they will score low on rational measures like relevance, persuasion, and intended purchase.

In short, an ad becomes a fame ad if it triggers intense positive emotions and has some unexpected elements that are surprising, so that people will start talking about it amongst themselves.

Thus, a celebrity ad is more likely to pay-off if it becomes a fame ad. This means the celebrity in the ad must be used in such a way so that the ad elicits intense positive emotional response and contains unexpected or surprising elements. Since people generally have some perceptions about celebrities, it’s actually easier to twist them in the ad to make it surprising and entertaining.

Let’s see a particularly good example of how to use celebrities in a campaign:

In these ads, we see a consistent creative idea: Nespresso is so great that it even outshines the gorgeous Clooney. This idea plays with public’s perceptions on Clooney, twists it to make it unexpected, charming, and enjoyable to watch. Using Clooney paid off, as the ads helped Nespresso to exceed its business targets and won a gold medal in an effectiveness award.

The best way to ensure that using celebrities in adverts will pay-off is by making him or her “a servant” to the creative idea. The creative idea should be “the master” that drives the ad to be emotionally powerful and unexpected. This is not unlike the process in movie production: we start with a screenplay or a story that ideally drives the casting decisions.

If the idea is primary and the celebrity is secondary, then clients can actually save a lot of money not by signing up overly-used celebrities, but by demanding the agency to produce a powerful creative idea and execute it well.

To sum up, dear clients: using celebrities in your advertising may give you a head start in terms of ad awareness (not necessarily brand awareness) or noticeability. But if that celebrity does not run properly, and she is burdened by wearing too many logos from other brands, another ad powered by a brilliant creative idea will surpass and beat her on the race of effectiveness.



Millward Brown Knowledge Point, 2007, What are the benefits of celebrity-based campaigns?

Elberse, A. & Verleun, J, 2012, The Economic Value of Celebrity Endorsements, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 52, No. 2

Pringle, H., 2012, How to use celebrity in brand building, Warc Best Practice

Binet, L. 2009, The dangers of common sense, Market Leader, Quarter 3

Binet, L. & Field, P., 2009, Empirical Generalizations about Advertising Campaign Success, Journal of Advertising Research Vol. 49, No. 2

Wood, O., 2010, Using An Emotional Model to Improve The Measurement of Advertising Effectiveness, Brain Juicer.

social marketing, strategy

The propaganda against fuel subsidy in Indonesia: a hypothetical strategy

Is it absurd to imagine the possible existence of benevolent incarnations of Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany?

I have been wanting to write a post on Nazi propaganda for a while. My intent is to show what the rules from its playbook are, and how a presidential candidate for 2014 in Indonesia can make use of them. But this has to wait, because the current news about fuel subsidy in Indonesia shifts my attention.

Indonesian Parliament (DPR) has agreed to add IDR 23 trillion to the national budget for fuel subsidy in Indonesia (read the news in Indonesian here). This means, in total the government of Indonesia allocates IDR 305 trillion to subsidise fuel for 2012. This is a huge number, especially if we put it in the following context (data from this official statistics from Ministry of Finance, here):

  • The allocated budget for social assistance is IDR 64 trillion
  • The allocated budget for education is IDR 95.6 trillion
  • The allocated budget for capital expenditure on infrastructure development is 168 trillion.

It’s hard for me to accept that this country spends less on giving aid for the less fortunate, or on educating prople, or on building much-needed infrastructure, than on allowing motor-vehicle owners to pay an artificially low price for fuel.

It has been frequently argued that fuel subsidy is a bad policy (for example here in Indonesian, and here in English) and I fully support this position. This is why I was vexed when President Yudhoyono failed to cut off the fuel subsidy on April 1, 2012.

Now that the budget for fuel subsidy hits IDR 305 trillion, exceeding the original allocation by IDR 23 trillion, it is high time for the government to reconsider this policy again.

Obviously the government knows they can’t do anything about the fuel subsidy without DPR’s approval. I am also sure that they still remember DPR rejected this proposal in March this year. Assuming the government is sane enough to be committed to significantly reducing the fuel subsidy, I wonder if the government has started a communication campaign to gain public support for this proposal. I suspect they haven’t put serious effort for it. They did release this booklet, but if they think this alone will suffice, they are grossly mistaken.

But let’s imagine that the government has started to realize the importance of gaining public support for this proposal. Let’s imagine an even wilder scenario, that they commission me to develop the strategy for that campaign. What would I do? What would be my advice to them?

My main advice will be to find a simple and emotional narrative to back up the proposal of cutting-off fuel subsidy.

The proposal for cutting-off fuel subsidy is based on a very solid logical argument, supported with robust data from reliable sources. This argument also asserts we will reap more benefit in the future if we cut the fuel subsidy now. This is good, but this is not enough.

When it comes to change people’s opinions, we have learned that emotions are much stronger than logic (see here in the context of advertising, here in the context of information processing, and here in the context of moral reasoning). In other words, it’s futile to expect that we can gain massive public support for revoking fuel subsidy solely by giving them logical reasoning.

Considering that feelings are stronger than reasoning, the proposal to wipe out fuel subsidy needs to be backed up with a simple and emotional narrative. This is what has been missing.

Meanwhile, the argument against cutting off fuel subsidy is supported with faulty premises or weak arguments, but it is built upon a very strong, simple, and emotional narrative. This photo aptly summarizes that narrative:

Student demonstration against revoking the fuel subsidy, Yogyakarta, March 26, 2102. Image from Pemikir Ideologis.

The narrative against revoking the fuel subsidy can be expressed in this simple and colorful way:

If the fuel subsidy is revoked, fuel price will go up. People who have been facing hardships will be even more miserable. The government is cruel, unfair, and is betraying the people.

The power of this narrative goes beyond its simplicity. It paints a very concrete mental picture of who the victim is: those poor people who have been living hand to mouth, and who will become even more destitute after the fuel price goes up. It also paints a clear picture of who the culprit is: the despotic and uncaring government.

Thanks to its being simple and concrete, the narrative can provoke strong emotional reactions, like anger or contempt.

Lastly, the narrative enables people to easily imagine an immediate unpleasant situation: “After fuel price goes up, everything else goes up but my income. I will have to cut down on food, recreation, or even education. Life will be worse.” This beats the logical argument against fuel subsidy that offers long term future benefits. In behavioral economics, it is recognized that “now is stronger than the future” (see it here).

To sum up: the call for continuing fuel subsidy has a simple, concrete, emotional narrative describing immediate predicament that trumps over the abstract and logical argument predicting future benefits of revoking fuel subsidy. Of course the latter can’t win.

What we need to do is replacing the logical reasoning with a narrative as powerful as the opposing party’s. Since the central theme of the opposing party’s narrative is about injustice, let’s use the same theme for ours. So what could be the narrative we can use?

Few months ago, Haryo Aswicahyono (he tweets as @Aswicahyono and I recommend you to follow him) shared an infographic he made based on data from LPEM UI. This infographic has a strong message, and it gives me inspiration for cooking up the narrative.

How fuel subsidy is distributed to people in Indonesia

The bars in horizontal axis refer to the decile of Indonesians based on their household consumption, which is a proxy for wealth (the wealthier someone is, the more money she spends for household expenses). Thus, bar labelled ’10’ stands for Indonesia’s richest 10%, while bar labelled ‘1’ represents Indonesia’s poorest 10%. Meanwhile, the vertical axis refers to percentage of fuel subsidy received by each decile. You can see here that almost 50% of fuel subsidy in Indonesia is enjoyed by Indonesia’s richest, and only around 2% goes to Indonesia’s poorest. In other words, more than 90% of fuel subsidy does not go to the poorest or the very poor Indonesians.

Definitely this is not a picture of fairness.

Things can get spicier: Aswicahyono has made another infographic —I have forgiven him for using Comic Sans— to make us understand about the opportunity cost of fuel subsidy. When the fuel subsidy was still IDR 233 trillion, it could have bought us 80,000 Puskesmas (community health center), or 40,000km-long road, or 1,300 seaports, or 6,000 corridors for public transportations. Of course the picture gets more dramatic now that fuel subsidy has hit IDR 305 trillion.

Instead of spending all those money on fuel subsidy, what can we get?

So where does it lead us, in the narrative to support revoking fuel subsidy?

I think we end up having a story about injustice, or more precisely, how the rich is robbing the poor. Yes, dear readers, this is your classic class-warfare narrative. It goes on like this:

The poor in remote rural area in Indonesia will stay poor, uneducated, and backward because all the money that can build schools, Puskesmas, rice fields, and roads for them is used so rich people in the cities can continuously enjoy cheap and comfortable rides on their expensive vehicles. Imagine how life will be much better for the poor if we stop spoiling those rich people!

This narrative is relatively simple. It is relatable because the theme, i.e. the rich stealing from the poor, is very common. It paints a concrete mental picture of the victim and the culprit. It triggers raw and fierce emotions, like envy, disgust, contempt, and anger. It refers strongly to today’s predicament, and offers a “what could have been” alternative.

With this narrative, it’s not difficult to imagine the kind of propaganda material we can use to rally public support to revoke the fuel subsidy.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that I feel nauseated with this narrative. Instinctively I detest class-warfare narratives. In my book it’s bad taste, not that different from using sex or stereotypes. Class warfare tactics remind me a lot to communism, an ideology I’ve declared as bankrupt. I hate painting a one-dimensional, stereotypical, envy-inducing picture of wealthy people. Maybe because I’m quite well-off too.

Yet I have this strong suspicion that this narrative will work effectively.

Seeing myself coming up with this narrative not only makes me feel sick. It opens up a lot of questions in me. Can the narrative of “the rich robbing the poor” be justified, considering its end for our greater good (that is of course, if you believe fuel subsidy is a bad policy)? How far can a supposedly-noble goal justify “bad” or “questionable” strategy or tactics for propaganda? Is “a benevolent incarnation of Joseph Goebbels” an oxymoron?

What do you think, my dear readers?

social marketing, strategy

Three fundamental mistakes in planning communication and mobilisation for social causes

A few days ago, I found a very enthusiastic tweet on my timeline:

English translation: Booyah! “@ulinyusron: they will always try to weaken @KPK_RI (Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Committee) but we have people as the fortress. People’s energy will never deplete, while The Parliament can lose its power”.

Lately, KPK has been furiously attacked from all directions: The Parliament (DPR) is still refusing to approve budget for KPK’s new office, Police (Polri) has been passive-aggressively defying KPK’s authority to investigate a corruption allegation in Police Traffic Department, and The Parliament (again) tries to incapacitate KPK with a new legislation.

From the above tweet, the phrase “People’s energy will never deplete” makes me wonder. Is it wise, will it help, if we hold on to that assumption that people will never tire to defend KPK?

From Roy Morgan Single Source Survey, 4th Quarter 2011. Interviewing 24,000 respondents aged 14+ , randomly sampled in 17 provinces, urban and rural Indonesia.

Yes, 90% of Indonesians agree that corruption is one of major problems this country is facing. In other words, nearly all Indonesians want corruptions to be eradicated. But does it automatically mean that people of Indonesia will always tirelessly support or defend KPK?

I don’t think so.

Assuming that “people will indefatigably support KPK” (or any other agendas, for that matter) is an example of the fundamental mistakes that often happen when we develop communication or mobilisation programs for social cause. These mistakes will lead us to ineffective communication or mobilisation campaigns, and eventually to failure to make real changes.

I often observe those mistakes in many social cause campaigns in both Indonesia and abroad. I will elaborate the three most common ones, so we all can learn from them. We can’t afford to waste our limited resource unnecessarily in our fight to make Indonesia cleaner and more just.

Mistake #1: Start from the assumption that others care as much as you do

If you’re trying to write communication or mobilisation programs to advance a social or political agenda, it’s very possible that you are an “activist”. As an activist, it goes without saying that you deeply and personally care about issues related to that cause. It’s understandable that you think those issues are important or urgent, and not resolving them will lead this nation (or even the human race) to the brink of disaster.

Nevertheless, if you want your communication or mobilisation programs to succeed, you should assume that nobody gives a damn.

I agree with this opinion that the task of communicators is to overcome indifference. Yes, it’s quite easy to accept that people are rarely occupied by brands of consumer goods. But what about important issues like poverty? Climate change? Human trafficking? Quality of public education? That people still eat shark fins? Wouldn’t people care about them?

Firstly, we have to be careful not to be too generous with the word “care”. Rationally acknowledging that a situation is not ideal (“there are still many poor people in Indonesia”) is not the same with being agitated about it, and wanting to sacrifice money, time, and energy to change it. So yes, 90% of Indonesians think corruption is a major corruption, but it does not mean they are as agitated or as committed as the KPK-defenders or anti-corruption activists.

Secondly, everybody on this planet has limited cognitive and emotional capacities. It’s only normal that they pay attention and be concerned about issues that directly matter to the their well-being and of those closest to them. It’s not a sign of selfishness or weakness of characters that they will prioritize their limited mental and intellectual resources to situations at hand, those that for them entailing imminent risks or promising immediate rewards.

Thirdly, the assumption that people don’t care will compel you to plan smarter and work harder to capture their attention, incite their emotional responses, and get them to participate in your cause.

Even though the default is people’s indifference, there is an antidote to that. That antidote is brilliant communication ideas. Brilliant ideas capture people’s attention. Brilliant ideas stir people’s emotions. Brilliant ideas make people see things that are usually taken for granted in a new light. Brilliant ideas make people believe they are part of the solution.

Mistake #2: Not specify who the communication target is

(Do you notice that I avoid using the term “target audience”? This is because imagining there is an audience leads you to failure)

Mass communication for social cause falls into the category of public service announcement (“iklan layanan masyarakat“) in advertising-speak. Interpreting the term uncritically, one can conclude that the communication target for the social cause campaign is “general public”. This is misleading.

Even if you think that your communication target is the general public, it does not mean you address “just everybody”. You still need to specify who they are, but not in terms of demographics like gender, age group, domicile, socio-economic status, etc. You have to specify who they are in terms of their mindset. Try to answer the following questions, as specific as you can:

The baseline (now)

  • What exactly do they know about the issue related to your cause?
  • What precisely are their opinions about it?
  • How do they really feel about it?
  • Who do they listen to, to get informed about the issue?
  • What have they been doing (or not doing) related to the issue?

The desired state (after being exposed with the communication)

  • What will they know about the issue?
  • What will be their opinions about it?
  • What will they feel about it?
  • Who will they listen to, to know more about the issue?
  • What will they do?
  • What will they tell their friends or families about the issue?

If you answer those questions thoroughly, you will get one step closer to a solid strategy. There is no solid strategy without clear and decisive targeting, and without solid strategy, it’s practically impossible to expect we can achieve the intended result.

You can read here if you want to continue developing the strategy for communication or mobilisation effort.

Mistake #3: Not plan thoroughly the link between public participation and expected real-life change

A lot of communication efforts in social cause are trying to invite the target to participate in mass mobilisation events, like signing up petitions, giving to charities, showing supports via symbolic actions (like using avatars in social media), or even taking it to the streets. Some campaigns in Indonesia have been quite successful in marshalling public participation, e.g. “coins for Prita” and “Cicak vs. Buaya “(KPK vs. Polri Part 1, 2009). But if we think more critically, we will wonder how the public participation in the above campaigns linked to changes in real-life. We eventually learn that Prita won her case in The Supreme Court, yet we can never tell if this has anything to do with her gaining massive public support. We also know the saga between KPK vs. Polri still continues.

If you are really serious to advance your cause, you will want to make real changes. Your communication or mobilisation efforts should not stop at getting other people show they support your cause, otherwise it’s just an expensive exercise in ego-stroking. Therefore, the question you should ask is not “How should I plan to be able to show how the public supports us?”. The right question is, “How should I plan to make changes that I want via communication or mobilisation?”

To illustrate, let’s discuss a bit more on KPK. Let’s say these are the changes we want to happen:

  1. The Parliament will approve the budget for KPK’s new office
  2. Police will drop their effort to investigate the corruption case in the body and defer to KPK’s authority
  3. The Parliament will discard the plan for new legislation that will incapacitate KPK.

For Change #1 to happen, let’s say some highly influential law-makers should start voicing out their dissenting opinions. Then we get back to targeting exercise. I believe the same principle goes for Change #3, although the key persons will of course be different.

For Change #2 to happen, I guess the key lies in The President as he is the boss of both institutions (KPK and Polri). He should instruct Polri to play by KPK’s rules, as that’s the legal and right thing to do. Then we get back to targeting exercise, but to single communication target: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. We ask those questions I’ve listed above. We then analyse what stands in between his baseline and the desired state. Given accurate information about his psychology and his circle of influence, I believe it’s not impossible we can stop Polri defying KPK in this case.


Getting familiar with these fundamental mistakes really helps in planning communication for social cause, but it will not make executing the plan easier. There are so many other things we need to consider, considering that for social cause financial and human resource are often scarce.

Specifically for KPK and its activists-defenders, I recommend that they start with a better assumption: that people of Indonesia have limited energy and mental resource, so we can’t take for granted that they will always fight for KPK. I will also recommend them to select just one issue where it is essential for them to rally public support, and to plan more wisely on how to make use of that support to incite real changes.

Of course it will be hard to choose on one issue when the attacks are almost endless. But then again, strategy is the discipline of exclusion, not inclusion. Otherwise we are just making a long and unrealistic to-do list.