‘Raising awareness’ should never be the only goal for your charity’s campaign. Here’s why.

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‘Raising awareness’ should never be the only goal for your charity’s campaign. Why? Let’s start with this perfect summary from the Spitfire Strategies Smart Chart communications guide (an unmissable resource, go get it immediately):

“Watch out for vague objectives such as “raising public awareness.” Usually “public awareness” is not an objective in and of itself. It is a midpoint on the road to changing behavior or a means of putting pressure on political or corporate leadership. You could do a poll before and after your campaign and determine that many people were aware of your campaign, but it wouldn’t change their behavior or compel them to take action.

Ask yourself: Why do you want to raise awareness? Do you want to pass a bill, change consumer behavior, or decrease the cost of immunization shots? State a specific objective and then decide how you are going to measure your progress toward this objective. “Stopping global climate change” or “saving the children” are certainly worthy aspirations, but they are big visions, not concrete objectives. “Increasing the number of households who recycle” and “providing health care coverage to all children in our state” are achievable objectives.”

There’s also this very pertinent point:

‘Awareness raising’ is extremely difficult to measure properly

You should certainly measure the reach of your digital campaign, but it would be unforgivably sloppy to count every impression or like as ‘awareness raised’.  Genuine awareness raising means:

  • making enough of an impression that people will recall your issue in the future
  • people actually comprehend the issue and what needs to be done about it
  • learning about the issue has caused them to become interested in taking action  
  • they associate the issue with your organisation

Getting ‘reach and impressions’ does not prove that any of the above happened. Digital channels move much too quickly: all an impression on Facebook or Twitter means is that the post appeared in someone’s feed for a few seconds before they scrolled on. People are bombarded with literally thousands of messages and ads every single day; what are the chances that they will remember yours? 

Large commercial brands don’t just invest in raising brand awareness, they also invest in properly measuring it, through market research, brand recall testing and sentiment analysis. Few charities have the budget to do the kind of evidence gathering that accurately measures if awareness of an issue has substantially changed and improved as the result of their campaign.

(This piece from Nick Burne about brand ads and the differences between distribution for large commercial brands and charities, is really worth reading)

For causes, ‘awareness’ needs to prompt action

Unless you are with an organisation whose only remit is to create and share information, you really need some kind of action associated with the content you are publishing.  It’s pretty rare for a cause to be talking about an issue without having a need for people to get involved in some way, such as through making a donation, taking a campaign action, becoming a volunteer. 

A more useful and rigorous way to measure the success of a digital campaign is to measure clicks and actions as a percentage of your impressions. If you reach a million people, but only 200 of them click through to your website* and only 10 of those visitors actually take action, this would suggest that the ‘awareness’ didn’t really deliver anything for you. Use these metrics instead:

  • Impressions / reach 
  • Engagements – as a percentage of impressions
  • Clicks – as a percentage of impressions
  • Actions – as a percentage of impressions
  • Ongoing support for the issue – as a percentage of impressions

*These may sound like ridiculous numbers, but I know of one ‘awareness raising’ campaign that got the following numbers: 

  • Facebook reach – 300k
  • Engagements – 11

Yes, 11. 300,000 people saw the campaign on Facebook and only 11 indicated that they were interested in it. An engagement rate of 0.0036%. Seeing this made me want to lie down on the floor and weep.  

But our funders want us to raise awareness!

Yes, this is a thing that happens. Sometimes the people who have the money just want a message splashed across lots of different channels and are only counting vanity metrics. It’s baffling, good lord they should know better, but it happens. If you find yourself in this position, and have a funder who will only fund ‘awareness’ campaigns, you can still be strategic. Think about how you can use it to build longer term relationships and grow your audience for future campaigns. 

For example, if a funder says they want “one million people to see this message about a health-related behaviour change!”, and neglect more meaningful metrics, you can fulfill their requirements while still doing something useful:

  • Work out a plan for getting wide reach for the message – such as Facebook ads, billboards, media ads. Metric for this stage = reach. 
  • Include a call to action to download a pack with further information about how they can actually apply this change. Metrics = visits to landing page, downloads of pack.
  • When people download the pack, ask them if they want to opt in to further information from your cause. Metric = sign up rate.
  • Put the people who have signed up on an automated email journey. Send them more information about the behaviour change, and also tell them ways that they can get involved in supporting the cause. Anything from volunteering to campaigning to donating. Metrics = engagement with the emails, conversions from email. 

You can also use email to check in with them about the behaviour change campaign, after a reasonable amount of time. Did they understand the message, did it cause them to change their behaviour, and did they stick to it? You can gather really useful qualitative feedback and comments for a low cost with good old reliable email. 

By doing the above, you’ll have fulfilled the funder’s requirements, while also giving the message the best chance of sticking, and growing your warm audience for future campaigns. 

Sometimes ‘awareness raising’ can backfire

Even if you have a really well-planned public awareness campaign, optimised and measured for meaningful, long-term attitude shifting –  you still need to examine your messaging and make sure that it doesn’t backfire. Many awareness raising messages do! There are a lot of pitfalls in messaging, and sometimes we can accidentally trigger negative associations or reinforce behaviours that we wish to change. For example, there’s good evidence that ‘myth-busting’ messages often amplify and reinforce the original myth

Some interesting reading about backfiring messaging:

Resources for framing and testing messages

  • The Public Interest Research Centre has excellent practical guides for researching, developing and testing your campaign messages
  • The Frameworks Institute has deep research on public attitudes towards a wide range of social issues, with fascinating information on the types of assumptions, misconceptions and stereotypes that people carry around with them. Plus lots of resources for framing your communications. 

What if we just need to share information?

There are some non-profits who are funded solely to develop and share information, and don’t have fundraising, volunteering or campaign actions that they can attach to this information. If that’s you, you’re still going to want to meaningfully measure how this information was consumed: people see thousands of ads, posts and messages every single day. As noted above, just because a message appeared in front of someone, doesn’t mean that they will notice or remember it.  

You can measure:

  • Engagement with informational content that you share on social media: likes, shares, comments. Engagement at least indicates that people are interested in the content. 
  • Time on page and number of pages visited on your website. Good results here suggest that people are taking enough time to actually read your content, and interested enough to click through to other pages to learn more.
  • Downloads of resources with further information, like PDFs.
  • With Google Tag Manager, you can track if people are scrolling down the page to read all the content, and if they’re playing video and audio clips on the page.
  • Website testing services like Hotjar can be used to measure what content people are interacting with on your web pages, and what they’re ignoring.

There are also things that you can very easily set up to gather feedback on the information, and use it to drive deeper engagement:

  • Put a ‘rate this information’ button or feedback field on your most important content pages.
  • Link to a survey asking people to tell you what they know and don’t know about the issue, and ask them what other information would be useful to them.
  • Add a call to action to ‘sign up to our emails if you’d like to stay informed about this issue’, and create an automated journey to send them more information and deepen their understanding.

I worked with an Irish NGO in 2020 on a campaign to promote youth voter registration. We couldn’t track how many new voters registered as a direct result of the campaign, as voter registration happens offline, with paperwork and visits to local police stations to get this paperwork stamped.  But we wanted some kind of meaningful measurement, so we put two feedback buttons on the landing page that contained all the voter registration info. Here’s how it worked:

  • We asked ‘did this page give you the information that you need?’
  • The button choices were: Yes, I plan to register to vote / No, I need more information. 
    • People who chose yes were sent to a thank you page and asked to share the content with friends. 
    • Site visitors who chose ‘no’ were sent to a secondary page with further information. 

This enabled us to track whether the information was easy to understand and get an indication of how many intended to register as a result of reading the content. Plus: it allowed us to set up Facebook Ads with a conversions objective, optimising the ad campaign to find people who would read and respond to the information, rather than just ‘like’ the ad and browse on.

There’s always something you can do to create meaningful measurement, even with low budgets and basic technology.

How to plan a campaign to get meaningful awareness and long term value

First, ask yourself and your team two questions

They’re slightly tough questions but they will help to focus your thinking: 

  • Is choosing awareness raising over an action a bit of a cop out?
  • Are we just focusing on awareness raising because it’s easier to achieve impressions than actual results? 

You may find that some of the agencies you work with will be all about awareness, focusing on hashtags and influencers and viral videos that they say will spread the message. The good agencies, the ones who really understand digital, will be proposing ideas for the user journey too. Once someone has seen the ad or the Instagram reel or the influencer video, what do they do next? Is it set up to be as convincing and frictionless as possible? Is every step measurable? 

Use this framework for planning

Meaningful awareness – how are we encouraging and measuring retention of the message? Can we show that the message is moving people to want to get involved?

User journey – when people are responsive to the message, what can they do next? What path are we sending them on, and how are we measuring the steps?

Long term value – what are we doing to build an ongoing relationship with this audience, so they will support our work on this issue on a longer term basis?

What do you think?

This article sums up a lot of things I’ve been mulling over for a long time now. I’d really love to hear what you think about it . Comment below, or chat with me about it on Twitter 🙂 

Image credit: Freepix

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