6 Common Messaging Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Learn how to identify and overcome common messaging pitfalls and how to clarify your brand message to capture attention, inspire action, and support your mission.
Common messaging mistakes small

If you’re a social purpose brand, you know that scaling your social impact requires clear, effective messaging. But without a solid messaging strategy, you can sink countless hours into wrestling with your brand messaging, searching for ways to stand out and capture your audience’s attention, only to have your story fall on deaf ears.

Creating a clear, concise, and compelling brand message can sometimes feel like an impossible task. Even if you’ve done the hard work and established your brand strategy and target audience strategy, your messaging must connect the dots for everything to coalesce.

Through our work helping nonprofits, foundations & impact investors, and social enterprises create and refine their message, we’ve identified a few common messaging mistakes that seem to resurface year after year.

Learn how to identify and overcome common messaging pitfalls and how to clarify your brand message to capture attention, inspire action, and support your mission.

Get the Whitepaper

Effective Messaging Prerequisites

Before you dive into your brand messaging, it’s critical to have a few foundational elements of your overarching brand strategy defined and tested. Without these core pillars guiding your messaging, you’ll find it impossible to create a brand story that resonates with your audience and inspires action. Learn more about creating your brand strategy in our whitepaper here and target audience strategy in our article here.

Common Messaging Mistakes

#1 Making Your Brand the Center of Your Story

The most common messaging mistake we see is making your story all about you. Flipping this script and focusing your message on making your audience the hero of your story is the first step in developing a compelling message. Your audience certainly cares about you and what you do, but they care even more about how they fit into your story.

Frame your message around empowering, guiding, and inspiring your audience to get involved, take action, and join your movement and/or community. Communicate how your brand empowers them to help. Show them how their engagement makes a difference. Invite them to join you on your mission with clear calls to action that tell them how they can create positive, lasting impact.

When your audience understands their place in your story, they begin to engage with your brand and a relationship forms.

#2 Leading with Negative, Fear-based Messaging

Your cause may be fighting injustice, advocating for the neglected or underserved, spreading awareness about inequity, or building a movement against an environmental threat. In these scenarios, it’s common to have a bias towards leading your message with the problem, the enemy, or the injustice to stir emotions and entice people to react.

Although fear-based messaging can work, we’ve found that focusing on progress, solutions, and a clear vision for a better future to be a far more effective motivator. This doesn’t mean you have to shy away from the problems you are solving or sugar-coat the real issues facing humanity.

It can be appropriate to communicate what’s on the line, the gravity of potential failure and educate your audience around the problems you solve. Just do a gut check on your message to see if it feels like fear mongering or negativity and adjust accordingly. And make sure this isn’t the opening scene in your story.

Reframe your message to harness the power of positive messaging and you’ll find that optimism, hope, and clear solutions for positive impact will create lasting, long-term support and results.

#3 Playing it Safe

The counterpoint to negative, fear-based messaging is being so worried about offending your audience or having an opinion that your messaging becomes bland, safe, and generic. Sure, you won’t ruffle any feathers with this approach, but you also won’t motivate anyone to lean in, pay attention, and engage with your brand.

Strike the right balance between interesting and authentic. Be weary of the unintended consequences of generic messaging: no one will listen, no one will care, and your message will get lost in the sea of noise.

Dare to be bold, brave, and stand for something. Put a stake in the ground around your beliefs, perspectives, and values as a brand. Point out what makes your organization different. Be opinionated. Focus on attracting a cult of core followers, even if you turn a few people away by clashing with their beliefs. Craft your message for those that you aim to attract, and worry less about your critics. A bland headline won’t change their minds anyway.

#4 Style Over Substance

Another common problem we see with messaging is a tendency to focus too much on flowery, fancy copy that lacks clarity, meaning, and substance. Remember, the purpose of your message is to communicate ideas, not just sound intriguing. It’s always better to be clear than to be clever.

If your audience reads a headline on a campaign or lands on your homepage and doesn’t understand what you are trying to communicate, your messaging has failed. Start with a clear message, make sure it’s the right one, and then get creative with interesting ways to express that message. Test it with your audience. Ask them what it communicates to them. Did they get the message?

Steer clear of buzzwords, jargony language, acronyms, insider speak, and overly academic tone in your messaging. People prefer a conversational tone in their relationship with your brand, even in a serious, important, or professional context. Write like you speak, and be sure your tone and voice remains consistent and clear above all else. The experience of engaging with your messaging should be the same as engaging with you directly. When the two are different, people perceive your messaging as inauthentic.

Also consider how imagery reinforces your message. Are you striving for an authentic, personal approach to your messaging and then using generic stock photos or “clipart” quality imagery in your marketing? This dissonance muddies your message and turns your audience off.

Develop a bias towards clarity over creativity, and know that with good writing you don’t have to choose.

#5 Using the Same Message For Every Audience

Crafting a unified, overarching message is critical for effective brand positioning. But keep in mind that not all audiences are equal. Part of your target audience strategy should be to prioritize your different audiences. Whenever possible, identify a single primary audience, and focus your core messaging on speaking directly to this audience. Often, this audience is the group supporting your organization (donors, funders, customers, volunteers, or grant-makers).

When you try to create a unified message that speaks to every audience simultaneously, you will inevitably dilute your message. This can quickly lead into the trap of creating generic, vague, or confusing messaging (see #3 and #4).

Rather than try to speak to everyone, create targeted content for each of your audience personas and run segmented campaigns. On your website, important audiences may require a sub-page where you speak directly to them. Your messaging on those pages should shift slightly to be audience appropriate while remaining authentic. You’ll find that speaking directly to your audience will lead to higher engagement and conversions.

Every message is the beginning of a conversation. Be sure there’s someone else on the other end compelled to listen.

#6 Assuming Your Audience Knows How to Get Involved

If you’ve crafted a strong message with your narrative focused on your audience, articulated in an interesting and clear way, you’re almost ready to reap the rewards of effective messaging. Don’t let all of your hard work fall flat by making the final messaging mistake of assuming that your audience knows how to get involved.

Including a clear CTA (Call to Action) is marketing 101 stuff, but it’s amazing how often we see campaigns, newsletters, and websites without clear CTA’s. Don’t assume your audience will do the work to connect the dots. Avoid vague CTA’s like “Learn More” or “Get Involved” and instead use direct, clear language like “Donate $10 today” or “Volunteer this Friday at 5pm.” Your audience will thank you for laying out a clear path to action.

In your messaging, ask and you shall receive.

Putting it into Practice

You’ve likely experienced a moment where a compelling brand message grabbed your attention, inspired you to take action, or won you over. And you can also likely list a handful of brands that “just get you” with their messaging. Strive to become one of these brands for your audience.

These common messaging mistakes are all common for a reason. Without a strategy in place, consistent diligence, and an internal advocate for a consistent voice overseeing marketing and communications at your organization, it’s easy to fall into these traps.

Realistically, developing a strong brand voice and message takes intention, experimentation, and iteration. Over time, you’ll find your voice and eventually it will become second nature. Until then, as you get ready to launch your next website refresh or send out your next campaign, test your messaging against the pitfalls we’ve outlined and be sure you’re setting yourself up for success.

Your brand message sets the tone for your relationship with your audience. Make a good first impression here and you’re on your way to creating a passionate following of brand ambassadors and moving your mission forward.

Stay Connected

Get our insights delivered straight to your inbox.