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.

advertising, social marketing

Advertising workers, please help me disconfirm my prejudice about us

A poster for the movie “Agency” from

I have a confession. I have a strong prejudice against what agency people call as “initiative PSA”.

(For those outside the ad agency business, PSA stands for public service announcement. It’s advertising about public or social issues like climate change, human rights, domestic violence, etc. In “normal” PSA, usually government or NGO clients commission ad agencies to make them. In “initiative” PSA, the agencies make them first, and then finding the clients who agree to sign them off).

The first reason I’m very skeptical about initiative PSA is because too often they are not well thought of. Of course agency people have much more limited understanding about, let’s say, child trafficking in rural Java compared to my friend who heads The Center of Child Protection in University of Indonesia.

The lack of understanding about the problem often contributes to failure to think through about the basic strategy, such as:

  • Let’s say we want to try to reduce the numbers of children being trafficked in a village. Whom will we address as the audience? The children being trafficked? The children who are vulnerable to be trafficked? Their parents? The village head? The villagers? The policy makers? People who can influence the policy makers?
  • What is the barrier?  What exactly hinders the target audience from doing the thing we want them to do? For vulnerable parents, is it about abject poverty? For villagers, is it about the attitude of “mind your own business”? For the village head, is it about the belief that he has no power to do anything? For policy makers, is it about lack of interest in that subject?
  • What needs to change? At the most fundamental level, I second Clay Shirky that behavior is motivation filtered through by opportunity. This means that to start a new behavior or stop an old one, we must decide where we want to focus on. If we target the parents who face dire poverty so “selling” their daughters to a trafficker doesn’t seem as a very bad idea, do we really think we should focus on their motivations? If we target the vulnerable children, should we ask them to keep motivated to continue their educations, while the nearest junior high school is 20 km away from their village?

The second basis of my skepticism is about the intention of the makers. It disgusts me when I find out that their main intent is to win some creative awards. They don’t actually care whether the real problem being solved, or whether real people get the help they need. My suspicion comes from the fact that in many agencies, conversation about initiative PSA often starts with something like, “Hey, I have this cool idea for an interactive billboard about the homeless (or HIV, or bullying, or whatever). Let’s find a supplier who can help us build this for free and an NGO whose logo we can use.”

Please understand that I’m not accusing that all agency people who have come up with initiative PSAs are driven by selfish agendas. This is not the case, as proven by the real story behind one of the most wonderful ideas advertising people ever came up with: “Help I’ve Cut Myself and I Want to Save A Life”.

“Help I’ve Cut Myself and I Want to Save A Life” bandages and bone marrow kit

“Help I’ve Cut Myself and I Want to Save A Life” is a first-aid kit that consists of bandages and bone marrow kit. You accidentally cut yourself. You’ll need a bandage. And hey, while you’re at it why don’t you use that blood for the bone marrow kit? Post that kit to the written address, and who knows your blood will match someone’s who really needs a bone-marrow transplantation. After all, the odd of a matching blood between a donor and a recipient that’s not family related is 1 in 20,000.

Graham Douglas of Droga5 came up with this idea. His identical twin brother had leukemia and was saved by a donor. This is why Douglas has always been preoccupied with this topic.

But what I’m afraid is (and I genuinely hope I’m wrong on this) in most ad agencies the above story is an exception rather than the rule. I’m afraid that we advertising workers fail to see that when making initiative PSA, we are so close to exploiting people with dire problems for the sake of our fame and paycheck.

I’m not advocating that advertising agencies stop doing initiative PSA. Not at all. After all, I am still in this business because I still believe that done right, advertising can change the world for the better.

What I’m asking us to do (and I know this is a big ask) is to stop thinking about making initiative PSA. Start thinking about solving non-commercial problems that are close to our heart.

Just like the story of Graham Douglas above. I  think this is why the idea of bandages and bone marrow kit combo is brilliant. It is based on a very clear understanding on what the problem is, on what needs to change. It has a laser sharp focus on who the target should be, their barrier, and what they should do next. And the execution is simple, effective, and efficient.

If we want to make initiative PSA, I suggest that the good place to start is this question, “What bothers me?”

What irks you? What kind of stories boils your blood or drives you to tears? What kind of news shakes your emotions? Do you passionately believe that something needs to change in your environment or the society? Start from there. Let your anger, or frustration, or passion fuel you.

What if you can’t answer those questions? What if nothing really bothers you in your environment today? What if you don’t see any needs for social or political changes?

This can happen, I believe.

If this happens to you, then I suggest you to meet non-advertising people, read non-advertising books or websites or articles, go to places advertising people don’t bother to visit. In other words, I suggest you to start living the real life.