Putting Your Audience First: The Importance of Outside-In Thinking

Ed Tazzia, Principal, Sycamore And Company

An effective communications effort starts with a strategy. The better and tighter the strategy, the greater the likelihood of success with the total effort. Easy to accept. Harder to deliver.

In 2008, a group of PR and marketing professionals started a program called the US Marketing Communication College (PRN, July 2019). The task was to help members of the Department of State, the Department of Defense and other agencies be more effective in their communications programs.

Charged with swaying public opinion and driving substantive behavioral change,  these were serious people.  Most of them lacked experience in the art and science of communications.

ABCDE Method

The ABCDE method of building a communications strategy grew out of the decade of work the PR and marketing pros did with these individuals. It stands for: (A) Audience, (B) Behavioral Objective, (C) Content, (D) Delivery, and (E) Evaluation.

While a title like ABCDE may make it sound as though the process is linear and sequential, it is anything but. A good strategy has to be developed in an iterative way.

  • First, you start with the audience you believe you are ultimately trying to reach and a behavior you are trying to elicit. You may soon find, though, that to convince your ultimate audience, you need to identify a totally different audience that can influence the target. Your communications strategy has to shift.

Step Back

Common sense? Yes. Not rocket science. Too often, however, people charged with communicating a message to a given audience are obsessed. They are so focused on that task and objective that they don’t step back. As a result they fail to understand what it takes to convince their ultimate target.

It is these intervening steps that must be addressed and dealt with in order to get to the ultimate goal.

  • Second, when trying to establish the behavior you desire to change, it is essential to consider the change from the audience’s perspective. The concept is outside-in thinking.

Over the years we observed that many, if not most of our students from the government or the NGO communities, have been directed to execute a given program or communicate a specific policy without a clear understanding of the behavior they are trying to change or drive.

Listen to the Audience

On many occasions, once the objective was articulated, it was clear that the program was not going to get the desired result.

Often the policy as described would result in a very different behavior on the part of the target audience. Too often we are so focused on what we want to execute. We don’t think about whether it is the right tool for the task.

  • Third, and relatedly, the content–the actual messaging that must be driven by the strategy–must also be based on the outside-in perspective of the audience. Again, too often we have found that we are so concerned about what we want to say, that we don’t think about what the audience needs to hear in order to behave in the way that we ultimately need.

What’s in it for me?

For example, you are trying to get a group of countries to support U.S. policy on international clean air. Avoid arguing why Washington’s position is correct. Instead,  determine what benefit the audience will receive if it supports that position. What’s in it for them?

So, a few things to consider as you work through your ABCDE of communications. First, recognize that where you start may not be where you end. There might be a few layers of communication that you need to go through.

And as you are working through each stage, make sure you start from the outside in. Ultimately it is the audience that gets to decide if it will change its behavior. Similarly, audiences will choose to accede to your desired goal. Or not.

Editor’s Note:  The ABCDE method is detailed in “Crafting Persuasion.”  The authors are Kip Knight, Ed Tazzia and PRNEWS Hall of Fame member Bob Pearson. The book is available at Amazon.com, Kindle and in e-book formats.

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