Big Picture

7 marketing rules to apply in search of a less polarized nation

Lightman is professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.


Seven week ago now, I listened to President Biden's inaugural address with appreciation and hope. His message of unification was welcome after many years of divisive rhetoric and sowing seeds of mistrust and fear.

While I agree that we can unify this nation and work together toward common objectives, it will take time and require unconventional thinking. And it will come at a cost. The nation is highly polarized because of both radicalization, on both ends of the political spectrum, and the flow of disinformation. How our information is produced, shared and consumed is at the core of both problems.

What were once trusted sources of information have been supplanted by hyper-targeted and directed information flows through social media platforms. And those inadvertently foster echo chambers and sustain online communities that seek to reinforce their own political beliefs to the exclusion of divergent opinions.

We are also facing a veritable witches' brew of social stresses that have come to a boil the past year: racial tension, pandemic uncertainties and economic disparity. The new administration has many ambitious ideas for calming the storm. Many of Biden's proposals are acutely needed but fraught with challenges — not just in getting them through Congress, but in getting them embraced or at least accepted across a divided nation.

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Based on a career working on digital marketing and analytics campaigns with dozens of organizations, here are seven tenets of marketing that Biden and his allies could adopt and thereby promote greater probability of success.

People act irrationally. And they do so especially under duress. Whether a patient sitting in a doctor's office, a student getting ready for an exam or a voter waiting for election results, stressful times result in irrational actions and decisions. Considering this is key when trying to develop and implement policies. It is also critical in terms of understanding communication and engagement.

Complex issues must be simplified. That's the only way to ensure widespread understanding. Many policies today are intermingled with data and have far-reaching and multifaceted implications — economically, technically, socially and politically. Simplifying and communicating to a variety of different stakeholders is a skill that needs to be taught and put into practice. People are bombarded with a slew of information; they need to cognitively process and comprehend the desired messaging in a manner that makes sense.

Motivation and persuasion are different. One size does not fit all. There are vastly different motivations (both extrinsic and intrinsic) that could help define a value proposition in order to develop the right persuasive arguments. Knowing how they differ across targeted segments is vitally important to engagement..

Trust is a prerequisite. Re-establishing trust in our government and our mechanism of governing has to happen before the sale. We are suffering from a collective lack of trust in our bedrock institutions. The many reasons include societal disruption, lack of consumer relevance and absence of transparency. And, of course, the previous president conditioned the public not to trust even the very government he headed.

There are many ways to measure and assess trust. This can serve as a baseline to understand changes within different target audiences. In order to rebuild trust, actions speak louder than words. But this takes time, especially when it comes to sweeping policy changes, so interim measures associated with engagement, public input and continuous transparency are needed.

We are all on the spectrum. Everyone exists in a unique place along a spectrum of attitudinal profiles. At one end are people who believe a government official's role is to have strong opinions and take bold action. At the other end are people who abhor politicians and would rather watch problems burn than engage in a discussion to find commonality. A majority of people exist somewhere in the middle.

Identifying the groups at the poles is critical, so leaders do not waste their effort trying to engage those groups for naught. Given our highly polarized society, with groups of citizens who feel disenfranchised to an extent where they see no common ground, leaders must instead focus time and energy on segments of society that will at least be willing to engage.

Big data helps a lot. Segmenting individuals has gotten a bit of negative press due to the increased use of personal data to monetize activities through advertising. The federal government has quite a bit of transactional data and demographic data associated with citizens. But what about psychographics — personality, values and attitudes? Social media platforms use these marketing characteristics to deliver targeted messaging, advertise products and services and make recommendations for connecting to others.

The administration could benefit greatly from this type of data, because it could help with engaging different constituents. But any effort to collect it would be met with public hesitancy and criticism. Doing so could succeed only with complete transparency, a convincing value proposition for citizens — and their complete control over whatever information is shared.

Social media is the future. Historically, elected officials and policymakers have used direct engagement with constituents as their main venue for persuasion. A more effective approach could include creating a program of social media ambassadors, those who not only understand the details of legislative or regulatory changes but also have a sophisticated understanding of how to communicate with different groups. This is critical not only for engagement, but perhaps more importantly, agreement on what constitutes "ground truth."

These tenets are in no way mutually exclusive, Indeed, they need to be embraced concurrently. For example, you cannot rebuild trust without an understanding of how to engage, which is predicated on knowing more about the community with which you want to engage.

These are not trivial matters. Applying these precepts will involve considerable commitments of time and resources — and ample determination. But the effort ultimately can drive engagement, advocacy commonality and a boost in national unity.

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