WaterAid Station
WaterAid drinking kiosk at Glastonbury Festival, UK WaterAid/Ben Roberts

How can we reconnect with audiences we’ve left behind?

Across the international development sector, we’ve been slow to accept that British society is changing.

Austerity has turned people’s attention to local issues, political shifts mean that individuals at both ends of the left-right spectrum feel more emboldened to impose their opinions on others, while those with less firm standpoints are more likely to be swayed by our increasingly polarised press.

The shared experience of an international pandemic may have led to people feeling, at least momentarily, part of a global community, but Britain’s bleak economic prospects will likely erode that sense of connectedness, encouraging people to turn once again to the issues on their own doorsteps.

At the same time, our media landscape has changed immeasurably: we are bombarded with “content” at every turn, leading to content fatigue and, ultimately, consumer apathy. If you’re not telling your story in compelling, relevant ways in places where your target audience already consume media, then there’s very little chance of cutting through.

For us, the impact of these changes is compounded by continued under-investment in the international development “brand” (lots of need-focused activation content, too little impact-focused brand content). The resulting imbalance has fueled public scepticism, and perhaps accelerated the decline in support for UK aid and international development in general.

Understanding audiences to build support for aid

The Campaign to Defend Aid and Development, a collaboration of 25 leading international development organisations hosted by Bond, is focused on shoring up political support for UK aid. We recognise that regaining public support is essential to securing ongoing governmental commitment to development.

That’s why, as core members of the public sceptics working group within the campaign, I and Ameline Jean (Head of Insight at Save the Children) led the commissioning of a new piece of research, now known as Public Insight 2020, designed to deepen our understanding of the “marginally engaged” public (see the Development Engagement Lab for definitions). We wanted to unlock the insight required to develop a new, more compelling narrative that would resonate with the wider public.

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This focus on the “marginally engaged” meant we were focusing on a more “distant” audience, rather than looking at the “home crowd”, who already support international causes. But in doing so, we were not ignoring the problems closer to home: existing research showed that even the most committed of supporters of UK aid were voicing the same concerns and expressing the very same doubts as those who are further from us.

So, in line with “design target” theory, where you seek the opinions of more extreme audiences to establish a clearer articulation of the issues, we believed we would identify a set of universal truths that would be applicable to both extreme and moderate sceptics alike.

Finding hope in the disengaged

What has been uncovered by the research is both reassuring and heartening. Through qualitative and quantitative analysis, we have identified three “marginally engaged” audience segments:

  • Stability Seekers
  • Principled Pragmatists
  • Practical Empaths.

The overriding research takeaway is that international development simply does not register in the consciousness of this audience: they don’t actively reject international development or question its purpose, they simply aren’t thinking about it.

However, when prompted to offer an opinion, they tend to draw on the few anecdotes and news stories that have registered, these being the same tropes we have been battling for some time. This may seem like a major setback, but actually we should take hope from the situation – they are receptive to input, so there is a real opportunity for us to be more proactive in telling our side of the story.

In addition, the research subjects came across as genuine, grounded and caring people, so we shouldn’t feel nervous about engaging them. Indeed, by the end of the research calls, most respondents seemed energised by, and supportive of the cause – a real indication that we can prevail!

To progress, we need to better understand what drives our target audiences and take account of their values and priorities. To connect with them, we must root what we say in something meaningful and relatable. We must use the media they use, meeting them on their home turf, rather than expecting them to join us in our echo chambers.

Unfortunately, in the international development sector, we a have a tendency to create the communications we ourselves would like to receive or would respond to. That needs to change.

What’s next

Explore the research and consider what it means for your organisation, your messaging, your target audiences and your communications plans. Can you find ways to incorporate these learnings into your work?

During lockdown, those of us working on the project have been looking in more depth at these segments, exploring their media consumption, their motivations and their daily lives, and in doing so, we have developed a better understanding of the world in which they live. As ever, the marvelous Development Engagement Lab dataset has been the nucleus of our research, but our partners at The Good Side have supplemented this with an array of secondary data sources, enabling us to create a more rounded and meaningful set of profiles.

We have also been engaging senior leaders from across the sector around potential next steps. There are a number of different options we’d like to pursue, and for an undertaking of this magnitude we will need multiple irons in the fire. For me, the most exciting of these is the prospect of collaborating with the entertainment industry. We’re hoping to identify a range of partners who can tell our stories in ways our (and their!) target audiences can relate to, and in places in which they already consume content. That could mean a docudrama on Netflix or a storyline in a soap opera – what’s critical is that it must feel like something they would naturally watch, read or listen to. International development coming to a screen near you in 2021? Watch this space.