Using digital communications to connect at a human level for maximum impact

28 October 2015
SERIES Think tanks and video 12 items

[Editor’s note: This is the first post by Florencia Durón for On Think Tanks. Florencia works as communication manager for a Mexican think tank on economic and budgetary research. She currently lives in Mexico City and will soon be moving to Honolulu, Hawaii.]

When I first joined the Centro de Investigación Económica y Presupuestaria (CIEP), I noticed they were having a hard time getting their audiences to engage with them -and I don’t blame them. It is not easy to communicate technical knowledge in a way that will keep your audiences interested. We’ve worked on different kinds of approaches to achieve this and, along the way, we have discovered elements that have transformed our communications into a more attractive and authentic offer. The purpose of this post is to share these elements.

Throughout the process of understanding complex ideas, communicating them creatively, and listening to our audience, a final communication issue that is often lost is showing researchers’ and the organisation’s personality –that is, reflecting the people behind the think tank outputs: their voices, their ideas, their jokes, their faces, and their interests.

This element is crucial, since communicating, at the end of the day, means connecting with other people; not just informing. Our Research Centre already had a personality (how could it not, if it’s made up of people); we simply did a better job at projecting it.

The following elements are not marketing strategies or propaganda to attract new followers: they are projections of what we do as humans to connect with others, and what we respond to in our regular life. They helped us to engage with more people, while transmitting complex information in the process.

The final results of this effort include an increase of 4 times the number of visitors to our webpage (from 15,941 visitors (2013-2014) to 66,602 visitors (2014-2015)) and social media (average reach changed from 250 per post and 222 new likes in one year (2013-2014), to an average reach of 1000 per post and 758 new likes in one year (2014-2015)) -but most importantly- more interactions with our audiences. These interactions are very valuable because they actually tell us if people understand our ideas, and if they find our communication engaging.

So, while asking ourselves “how can we connect as a think tank with our audience”, here are 8 recommendations to improve our narrative and make our communication more real and human:

  1. An attractive communication is based on team work. Hence, the  communication between the researchers and the communication manager is very important. I can’t emphasise this enough. We first noticed this when CIEP was preparing a study on zero-based budgeting for the Mexican context. Researchers and communication managers attended budgeting forums together and shared previous analysis on the subject. Clearly, these interactions helped the communications manager to understand more fully the implications and the background of the subject. But something else happened. The level of trust and complicity between the researchers and communicator increased.

Communicators often experience the difficulty of communicating ideas that are not necessarily their own; somehow, the level of involvement can result in a good level of emotion being present in every message, and a lack of involvement can easily translate into robotic-like messages. But when a communication manager plunges into a subject he/she almost feels it like his/her own –in other words, feels passionate about it– and this greatly improves the narrative of the messages they can help develop. This results in less complex language, deeper understanding, and a more passionate tone in the messages (particularly in our podcasts) produced by the centre. If both researcher and communicator are on the same page, the messages’ narrative will be clearer and more interesting.

  1. Dont forget youre talking to people. Regardless of how much someone knows about a given subject, their age, their gender, or their level of education, one thing is true: they are all people. And people like to connect with others.

At CIEP, our followers respond incredibly well to photos of team meetings or photos of a regular day’s work; in other words, when we show the people behind our centre and its publications. We link the photos to something related to work, like an upcoming document, for example, and the audience responds with more comments than usual -we are connecting with them through images.

While the comments on the photos are mainly congratulations for the Centre’s work, this is stimulating for all members of the think tank. And it serves another purpose, too: a picture posted on CIEP’s Facebook page has an average reach of 1,000 people, and sometimes more than half of them are not –yet- CIEP’s fans. So it has also expanded our reach.

  1. Show personality! Even on Twitter, where you’re supposed to share only specific information, the audience responds better to fresh thinking that is communicated passionately, not mechanically. The fact is: tweeting pure data and facts is boring.
  1. Be concrete. Pick one or two main messages and work on them -no matter what channel you’re using. It’s easy to spill and spill information, but by doing so, it is less likely a message will stick.
  1. Make it easier for them. Animated videos, podcasts, graphs, data visualisations, and any kind of editorial material that explains complex subjects in an easier way is always appreciated. This kind of content accompanies nicely any digital campaign and you can re-use it later. Plus, it’s a great chance to get creative!
  1. Dare to be different. Occasionally on Fridays, we post comics. We find them funny and laughter is another great way to connect with people. Of course, we are very careful to make sure that the tone of the joke/comic goes along with our values and ideas. Keep in mind that when you dare to be original, you’re also daring to be memorable.
  1. Internal communication is just as important. Digital campaigns have to start somewhere: inside the think tank is a good place to start. I’ve found that the more relaxed we are as a team, the more personality we reflect on everything we do –even on the most technical of researches. So if there is a problem with your external communication, you might want to start by analysing your think tank from the inside.
  1. Observe their reactions. We start and we finish with your audience. As time goes by we increase our understanding of them –what they like, or don’t, and why? Was the language different? Was it the content? If you look for a pattern, you can start understanding your audience and improving your content. Do surveys if necessary, but make sure you know who you are talking to and what they think of your content. Understanding their behaviour is more important than an increase of the number of visitors, since this can simply be a natural result to an increase of web users.

These are elements that you might already be applying to your own social media presence and every-day life in the hope of being engaging. A think tank shouldn’t be different. What makes communication real and honest is the human aspect of it; the actions that make us connect with other people with whom we share similar interests and values.

Whatever we communicate, there should be a balance between our rational thinking and our emotional thinking. Forcing messages will not work: communication should be authentic; otherwise it’s missing its purpose.

So remember to keep your messages simple and clear; to reflect the people working at your think tank, and most importantly – to have fun in the process.