Targeting to tackle polarisation.

Social targeting is a big reason why we’re going so far backwards on all the good stuff. Here’s how your organization can help turn things back in a happier direction by bringing more people with you.

The (anti)social paradox

The paradox of digital media is that the better the relationship you build with your audience, the less relevant you become for anyone else. Think of it like a party where there's a clique of really close friends talking amongst themselves. They’re having a great time, but it's just impossible for you to become part of that conversation.

That’s how business online works. That’s the echo chamber, and it feels great to be inside it, because, hey, these people really get me. (That’s who we choose to buy from online; the places we trust. It’s a sales strategy). But if that clique of friends has an idea it needs to tell the wider world about, then suddenly it’s got a problem.
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Better engagement = less social impact

Standard business thinking goes that it’s better to have a highly engaged audience of customers buying a lot than a loosely engaged group of people who could go elsewhere anytime. And hey, the world’s full of people. If you want to grow your business, once you've nailed your target audience profile, you can pay to reach out to millions of other people who look exactly the same as your current customers, any time.

It really works for business. It’s been a disaster for the ideas that should be underpinning our societies.

There’s another paradox too. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. And if you try to reach everyone, you end up reaching no one. The answer is to define an audience that's as big as possible, but without being too big. So who has a chance of being interested in what you’re doing? Please don’t say everyone.
How this partner gets traction for pro-rights content in MENA

Rethinking climate targeting

Let’s imagine we're a UK based pro-climate org. Our mission is to help save the world, and we need to get as many people on board as possible so together we can use our combined political capital to actually drive change.

It should be easy to get traction for our ideas here. 80% of people in the UK are concerned about the climate. But even climate orgs with hundreds of thousands of social followers are struggling to get better than a 1% organic reach ratio. That's because they've fallen into the niching trap.

Here’s an example: A lot of pro-climate orgs are doing content that's by young activists for young activists. They're passionate, and in theory they're easy to get engagement from. But the young activist demographic is tiny compared to the millions of people who aren't young activists. And what works for them clearly isn't working for the massive majority of people (young and old) who could get on board with pro-climate content.
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Only do this if you’ve got content that’s designed to reach out

A word of warning before we get going. There’s absolutely no point in creating content for people who look and think exactly like you AND targeting it widely. It will just be a waste of time and money. For insights into how design content for specific audiences, check out our innovations on experimentation and audience first strategy.

Why click?

Strategy always always always starts with user motivation. Why does anyone click on anything?The answer is always because it gives them something. Maybe it helps them understand things better, maybe it helps them feel less alone. Even if it’s just an engaging distraction, there’s value there; it's curing boredom. When we're thinking about targeting, our first question is always, why would someone click on this?

Reaching wider

There's a LOT of people we could potentially reach with climate content. So let's imagine that we create content that could work for more of them. A big part of the problem we really need to solve there is audience hopelessness and demotivation.

We're all terrified but does anyone really believe that recycling our plastic bottles is anything more than a behavioral placebo? And on the other end of the spectrum, climate revolution and smashing the economy sounds great except for all the famine and war that would come with it.

If we want to energize people on the climate, we need to give them ideas that work for them. And at the same time, we need to think about who we can't reach. Climate solutions are probably going to be relatively complex, for example, and that has implications for our targeting parameters.
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Defining a new audience

So, let's imagine we've created some content that's designed to connect with a wider audience. We're confident it will have value for a lot of people both inside and outside the activist echo chamber. Now we need to make sure it gets to them.

Who are they?

  • They’re terrified about the way things are going, but they're not getting much out of the usual NGO content.
  • They're interested in the wider world (not just in buying fluff to compete with their neighbors).
  • They're centrist(ish), but not limited in their imagination, and they're smart enough to understand the ideas we're expounding.
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Don’t trust the machines

Right now, the algorithm only shows our content to people who look like the people who are with us already. (It’s a strategy for selling more stuff to the same customer profile. And btw, to the platforms, human rights are worth no more or less than hiphop, hairdressing or horses; everyone’s just out to make a buck.)

On Meta the system they use to help you do that is called advantage+, onTikTok it's called Smart Performance Campaigns, and on Google it's called Performance Max. All of them use machine learning to optimize content delivery to people who want to see it. They are the death of democracy and human rights.

Let's uncheck that box, shall we?

Be aware that the platforms want to take targeting out of your hands, and it's getting more and more difficult to keep control yourself. The platform backends are designed to nudge you into using their targeting systems. It's partly that, in theory, they're providing a better service – it's instant and it's effective (if you’re selling stuff). But it's also that taking it out of your hands increases your dependence on them. You learn gradually less and less about your audience, so you have to rely on the AI to target for you.

Targeting is applied socialpsychology

So we have our audience roughly sketched out, but we’ll have to target ourselves because it doesn’t fit into the kind of neat boxes the algorithm wants to defined for us. If 80% of people in the Uk are worried about the climate, that means people from across the political spectrum. And yeah, of course there'll be people we don't agree with among them. But if we want to tackle polarization, we need to start reaching out. The world needs less yelling. We need to get more people on board with our issue, and this is how we start making that happen.
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Proxy targeting

The problem we have now is that there's no easy way of directly targeting the audience we want. It doesn't exist as a business category. So instead we need to think about the kind of interests and psychographic attributes that would (and would not) correlate with the audience we have in mind.

Testing moves people

The more you do this nuts and bolts targeting yourself – the more you play around and see what works and what doesn't – the more you learn about your audience and what they want (and the more you learn about who you need to be to create the impact you need to make).

One last thing. If we want to reach people, we need to go where they are. Refusing to do social media on principle would be massively shooting ourselves in the foot. Yes, there are some BIG problems with social media. But this is the world we live in. If we want to change it, we need to engage with it. Understanding the tech and making it work for people is a good place to start.

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