Communications campaigns using motivation research, motivating people to act, arrows pointing up

Communications Campaigns: Using Motivation Research To Build a Winning Strategy

This article on communications campaigns was originally written for frank talk, a blog run by University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. Read the original post here.


When your goal is to change the way that people think and behave, it’s important to really understand what motivates them.

What separates run-of-the-mill communications campaigns from those that have the power to motivate people to take action? Well, lots of things. But one critical element is research, which can make good communication campaigns great and show you exactly where to aim your campaign for its big launch.

For good research, you have to ask the right questions, and based on our years of experience, here are a few things we’ve learned.

The Basics

When you first conceive a campaign, or you get the assignment to build one, you probably have a general idea of what you want to accomplish. It almost seems silly to say, but establishing clear research goals is one of the first imperatives for a great campaign.

Here are a few key research questions to start with:

  • Who is the audience? This is seldom a simple answer. There usually are multiple audiences, and the primary audience probably has different segments within it. It is important to really know who you are trying to reach in order to speak to their values.
  • What’s the decision we want them to make? While awareness is important, the ultimate goal of any successful campaign is to get people to make a change.
  • What are the competing decisions that people might make, and what are the messages associated with them? Political types will tell you about the importance of opposition research. Military strategists emphasize the importance of knowing your enemy. Even the most benign of campaigns confronts the prospect of inertia.
  • What’s the context within which these decisions are being made? This is partly a recognition that we’re in a fast-changing environment. But it’s also an acknowledgement that decisions seldom are made in a vacuum, and it’s important to understand what aspects of one’s environment – and lifestyle – are engaged in this specific decision.

A good place to start for finding the answers to these questions is within your own organization. But don’t stop there. Check publicly available sources to see what else is being released on the issue.

If your campaign has to do with public policy or public norms, there are foundations, associations and companies that are already engaged in the field and have done studies that they release for public review. These likely won’t have everything you need to know, but they’ll help you start to answer your questions. Ultimately, you want to be able to make a good estimate about what is already known and what you still need to find out.

Communications Campaigns Informed by Motivation Research

The basics are important, but when your goal is to change the way that people think and behave, it’s important to really understand what motivates them. Here’s where we have a passion and an approach. We call it Motivation Research.

Communications campaigns are aided by identifying your target audience and determining their motivations. Pictured: Diverse groups of people in different settings, doing different activities
Who is the audience? What motivates them?

Motivation Research is built around the means-end theory of decision-making, used by some of the best marketers and communicators in the world for more than 50 years to build powerful and persuasive campaigns. It embodies the two key dimensions of persuasion: understanding the target audience’s personal values and the emotional links that tie those values to a specific decision.

The most effective persuasive communication is achieved by tying a “rational-emotional” connection to a specific decision or call to action. When people perceive that a specific decision will help them achieve personal values, the decision becomes more personally relevant. And personal relevance is what drives motivation.

The Motivation Research approach has a number of elements that set it apart. It uses probing techniques like qualitative research, but it employs an analytical structure that creates results like a quantitative study. Since it comes from psychology theory it’s not surprising that it uses questions like “how does that make you feel?” Most notably it creates graphical pictures known as decision maps that serve as excellent strategic thinking platforms.

Knowing where to meet your audience, and what will speak to their values and motivate them to take action, can only be found with good, solid research. Starting with the right questions will help you build winning communications campaigns.