The Power of Positive Messaging
Our reflection on one of our long-held values—leading with Positive Messaging.
An Optimistic Approach
Bill and Melinda Gates opened their 2018 Annual Letter, The 10 Toughest Questions We Get, on a positive note. “We are outspoken about our optimism. These days, though, optimism seems to be in short supply. The headlines are filled with awful news. Every day brings a different story of political division, violence, or natural disaster. Despite the headlines, we see a world that’s getting better.”
This outlook led us to reflect on one of our long-held values—our preference to lead with Positive Messaging.
In our work with social purpose brands, we’re often confronted with difficult social issues: environmental degradation, genocide, climate change, social injustice, and more. It’s easy to dwell on the negative effects of these problems.
We understand the need to clearly explain the issue at hand. And we never shy away from showcasing the damage being done to our planet and the harm inflicted on its people and animals. It’s critical to describe the problem(s) that your organization is addressing. But it’s just as important to tell people what’s been done, what’s in process, and the next steps you’re taking toward resolving the problem.
Confronting people with the horrors of the world is a proven strategy. Decades of showing starving children and abused animals on late-night TV has produced ongoing contributions and multitudes of visits to animal shelters.
Guilt works as a strategy.
Populate your website with brutal images, depressing statistics, and large DONATE buttons and people will contribute.
But it doesn’t last. Sure, some people will set up ongoing donations, but then they tune out due to the poor way in which they are being asked to donate.
Typical profit-driven organizations spend a brief amount of time explaining the problem and a significant amount of time demonstrating their solution and how it improves people’s lives. This is basic marketing. Have you ever seen an antacid ad that only focuses on the problem?
There’s only so much negativity a person can take. Eventually they’ll turn away, overwhelmed. You don’t want your audience to disengage. You want to grab their attention and hold it. You want to get them to empathize with your cause and do something about it. And most importantly, you want them to remain connected—to become ongoing contributors, and/or loyal customers who help you make the world a better place.
Think about this in everyday life. We all know people who focus on all of the terrible things that are happening in the world. But when someone does nothing but share disturbing headlines, lament their issues, or complain about their situation, they’re emotionally difficult to be around. In extreme cases, people avoid them, just like they disengage with negative messaging.
Lastly, unrelenting negative messaging doesn’t communicate accomplishments. People want to contribute to organizations or purchase products from companies that show measurable results. If your proportion of showing those results vs. reinforcing the negative messaging is askew, potential customers might believe that you’re not actually addressing the problem. If they reach this conclusion, they’ll shift their donations and/or purchases to an organization that is demonstrating results.
We prefer the strategy of positive messaging. Lead with solutions. Set tangible goals that, when reached, give your contributors a sense of accomplishment.
Some of the problems that social purpose brands address are global in scale, and that can make the problem seem too big to be solved. Taking it in small chunks and celebrating milestones leads to a sense that your organization’s mission is being accomplished. It shows partners and contributors that their actions result in measurable improvement.
Regardless of whether your organization is a nonprofit, a foundation, or a social enterprise, your goal should be the same as a profit-driven company—repeat “business.” The success of any enterprise depends on people connecting to your brand on an ongoing basis.
Consider the messaging that profit-driven companies employ. They make people feel good about themselves when they purchase their products. They focus on features and benefits that infer a better future state.
Social-purpose brands should think in the same way. Personal success stories and solutions should make up the majority of your marketing efforts. When people feel good about your product, they come back for more. Have you helped build a school that educates 100 girls? Your next campaign might be to provide transportation to allow 100 more to get to the school. This new goal tells people that you’ve accomplished something and are working to reach your ultimate goal—ensuring basic education to every girl in the world.
This positive message and sense of accomplishment is powerful. With each goal reached, contributors feel increasingly that they are partners in your mission. They have a deeper stake in each goal. They no longer feel like they have to help, but that they want to help. They become invested in your brand, both literally and figuratively.
Negative and Positive Messaging in Practice
To reach this level of engagement, your messaging needs to be overwhelmingly positive. We advise a 3:1 positive to negative messaging ratio—three positive messages should go out for every negative message, and you should try to make these messages focused on people and stories, rather than numbers.
Leading With Negativity: Save the Children
An example of negative messaging is Save the Children.
For nearly 100 years, this organization has been engaged in important work and produced respectable results. But their website uses primarily fear-based negative messaging. Keep in mind that messaging includes visual assets as well as written content.
Their site opens with a sad looking child being bathed in a ragged looking container. Below that, their Latest News section is almost entirely negative, including these headinges: Three Years of War in Yemen, Fears of New Health Emergency Facing Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh this Monsoon Season, and Syria: Casualties Soar by Nearly 50 Percent since Creation of So-Called 'De-Escalation Zones'.
The words and phrases below appear ‘above the fold’ on the site, meaning that on a laptop, when the page is fully opened in the browser, they appear without the need to scroll:
- •Health Emergency
- •Casualties Soar
These headlines are followed by one positive headline: We continue to help children and families in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
Note that the ratio of negative to positive messaging is precisely opposite to the ratio that we suggested above.
There are nine photos of children on the Home page. Of these, only one is clearly smiling. Five look distraught. Two are looking down. One is turned away, held by her mother in front of a post-Hurricane Maria damaged building. One child, seen in a small photo at the bottom of the page, has a slight smile. She sits next to her father looking at Save the Children literature. Below them is a headline that reads: The Joy of Sponsorship.
There’s positive messaging on the page as well, but it is clearly secondary. Here’s an example of of their health impact copy: “Nearly 5.6 million children die each year due to preventable and treatable causes. Malnutrition contributes to the deaths of children and a lifetime of poor health. We are committed to providing health and nutrition programs that save children's lives and ensure they grow up healthy.”
Taking It Positive
Using the messaging and information that exists on the site, it’s possible to turn this frown upside down. Below the fold, there’s a great quote from the organization’s founder, Eglantyne Jebb, “Humanity owes the child the best it has to give.” This could be placed at the top of the Home page over a photo of a smiling child who has benefitted from their work.
Take the one positive headline and place it first. Using information from the actual article, the headline could be revised as: After More Than 60,000 People Helped Following Hurricane Maria, Our Work Continues. This could be followed by a call-to-action to “Learn How You Can Help”.
There’s a case study below the fold titled, Saving Joseph. This could be moved up higher and use the title of the actual article, which is: A Mobile Clinic Saved Joseph. It has a sub-title of Emergency Health Units Treat and Vaccinate Children. Both of these titles are positive and would encourage site visitors to learn more about what Save the Children is accomplishing.
Even the really tough subjects could take a positive approach. The Three Years of War in Yemen, headline could be transformed to, Our Efforts Three Years Into the Yemeni Civil War. The article would need some work as it’s simply a quote from their Yemen Country Director describing everything bad that’s happening, and failing to highlight any of their work. It’s followed by a list of negative statistics. It seems like Save our Children isn’t accomplishing anything there, though no doubt, they’re doing a lot of good work.
In this case, the following phrases would be above the fold:
- •People Helped
- •Saved Joseph
- •Emergency Health Units
- •Treat and Vaccinate Children
- •Our Efforts
Which version of the site would you rather visit?
Overwhelmingly Hopeful: Water.org
One organization that uses positive messaging well is Water.org.
The Water.org home page contains over 575 words, including calls to action. It is overwhelmingly positive while clearly expressing the problem it seeks to address. It opens with the picture of a smiling girl along with this headline and message: Opportunity starts with safe water.
Water.org has empowered 10 million people with access to safe water and sanitation through affordable financing.
The headline tells site visitors the problem that Water.org is addressing in a positive way. They could have opened by saying: 844 Million people lack access to safe water, or 2.3 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, or 1 million people are killed by water-related disease each year. These statistics can be found near the bottom of an internal page. Make no mistake, these stats were prominent on that page, with bold headlines that didn’t diminish their impact and links to Learn More. The negative information is there for people who want to dive in deep. It’s just not front and center of their messaging.
Instead, the problem of unsafe water is implied by focusing on the positive elements of their work and its results. They immediately feel like a successful organization that’s fulfilling its mission.
On the home page, there are only 2 sentences that lean negative. One is in a case study about Anisa, a girl in Indonesia whose life has been improved through their work. The first sentence is: “Without safe water or a toilet at home, Anisa spent time gathering water, often prioritizing this over schoolwork.” The second is part of the same story as a featured stat: “6 hrs - women and girls spend up to 6 hours a day collecting water.”
These two statements are on either side of a picture of Anisa, with a big smile on her face.
These two short sentences clearly describe the problem. But they’re in the context of a success story, enveloping this bit of negative messaging within the context of a positive result.
Sustaining Positivity: New Leaf Paper
A social enterprise that uses positive messaging is New Leaf Paper.
Their environmental impact is woven into their sales message. The Home page is a slideshow. The first three slides read:
- •New Leaf Sustain - Since 1998 New Leaf Paper is the industry’s leader in developing papers with the highest sustainability and greatest impact on our environment. Voted B-corp “Best in the World” again in 2015. Feel good about using paper again …and again!
- •Press Release - Next Generation LCA Reveals One Hundred Times Lower Impact on Global Climate for 100% PCW Recycled Coated Paper vs Virgin Paper.
- •New Leaf Ingenuity - 100% PCRF hybrid uncoated paper. Exceptional ink hold out, formability in bindery, a super smooth surface that maintains a wonderful tactile uncoated feel, and a 96 bright, clean white stock. Ingenuity has a full offset and HP Certified digital line.
The slideshow is followed by three elements above the fold. Two are sales driven, but also include copy about their social mission. The third is entirely about their environmental impact. A founding Benefit Corporation, the messaging across their site is heavily positive. Every issue that they present is followed by how their products offer a solution.
Bill and Melinda opened their 2018 letter by sharing their optimistic outlook. Like so many things that their foundation does, this is an effective approach. We feel that it’s vital for social purpose brands to keep positive messaging at the forefront. Being hopeful is the key to engaging and holding an audience, even when the problem you’re addressing is emotionally challenging for people to absorb.
The type of messaging you use in your marketing efforts defines and distinguishes your brand. You can choose to be viewed as negative and depressing, or hopeful and positive. We believe that the latter is the best way to attract and cultivate your customers, and ultimately fulfill your mission and accomplish your goals.
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