The Birds and the Bees and Your Messaging

“Where did I come from?”

The question causes you to look up from your phone to see your son’s dead-serious face. Your stomach does a backflip. There it was, cold and naked, not caring whether you were ready or not: the sex talk.

Deep inside, you knew this question was coming sooner or later. Of course, you didn’t expect it at the breakfast table on a Saturday morning. Yet, you’ve always promised to be honest with with the kid, so you slowly set your phone aside and clear your throat. To stall for time, and to calm the butterflies in your stomach that feel more like woodpeckers, you take a long sip of your coffee. In and out goes a slow, deep breath.

“Well, son, when two people fall in love….”

And so it begins. You weave together a story of love and making babies, of parenthood and family. Sure, you’re a bit short on the mechanics — he’s still young — but you managed to name the parts and get the gist across. You even managed to explain how two people with the same parts can get babies. Despite the extra awkwardness, you thought that was a nice, inclusive touch. By the end, you feel rather proud to have not only gotten through it, but to have touched all the pertinent points he needs to know about the birds and the bees — for now. Mission accomplished. Message delivered.

The next moments would be completely silent were it not for the creaking wheels you swear you can hear turning in his head. You give him time to process it with a nonchalant sip of coffee, silently praying there aren’t any follow up questions.

He narrows his glare and cocks his head to the side. “Huh,” he says, completely perplexed, “my friend Tommy is from Connecticut.”

Oh, the angst and anxiety — not to mention the waste of effort — of answering the wrong question. Of course, the huge mistake was not asking what he meant by “where did I come from?” in the first place. It’s a failure to do the research before setting the objective and crafting a message. It’s a critical mistake nonprofits and small businesses make all the time in their own messaging. Far too often, brands think they know what their constituents want to know. Far too often, they are wrong.

Perhaps a few examples are in order.

Years ago, I was asked to chair the marketing committee for a nonprofit coalition of organizations involved in eye, organ, and tissue donation. The mission of this nonprofit coalition was to raise awareness to get people to sign up to be organ donors on the state’s brand new donor registry. The messaging strategy up to then included media stories of transplant successes, celebrity endorsements, and calls to action to “say yes” to donation. Nonetheless, the needle hadn’t moved….for years. While they had tons of research showing that most people support the concept of donation, Nearly all the research used in these campaigns had identified why people are motivated to sign up but not why people didn’t. So, I suggested it.

This new research among Coloradoans who did not sign up as a donor when renewing a driver’s license found that the vast majority felt that they could not because of their age, health, or lifestyle. In other words, all the stories about successful transplants in the world would not have moved them if they thought their diabetes or lack of exercise ruled them out. In effect, these campaigns explained the birds and the bees when the answer was “you’re from California.”

As a result, the messaging was changed from calls to simply “Say Yes!” to “Anyone can sign up regardless of age, health, or lifestyle.” This messaging, when amplified by each member of the coalition served to move the needle. Today, Colorado leads the nation in the percentage of people who choose to be eye, organ, and tissue donors at the time of obtaining or renewing a driver’s license. Yet, for years the messaging assumed what people needed to hear was the good donation and transplantation can do. It was wrong. The research demanded a change in the objective. The new objective was to decrease the number of people who ruled themselves out as donors because of their age, health, or lifestyle. That is a strategic, research-based objective.

Research can be the backbone of even the simplest of tactics. Santiago Gallego Villa is a Spanish language teacher in Medellin, Colombia. When Santiago first joined the online, foreign-language teaching platform,, he followed the marketing advice given by the platform on how to make an introductory video. The advice was for teachers to talk about their qualifications and teaching style so as to entice prospective students to sign up for an introductory lesson. As a result, nearly every video carried the same message highlighting the teacher’s expertise. How could Santiago stand out from the crowd?

Just a bit of research and it was clear that prospective students chose Verbling because it vetted it’s teachers to ensure a certain level of competency and qualification. Simply being experienced or having a teaching degree didn’t address the concern language learners have. Adult beginners have doubts about their ability to learn a new language. For intermediate students, the learning curve flattens at a certain point and most give up at that level. Advanced students have trouble finding teachers who can keep them challenged. It wasn’t about finding a qualified teacher; it was about addressing these issues.

A script outline was all Santiago needed to address these concerns. While his video lacks some of the polish of other highly-produced videos, he touched on each of these concerns using the vocabulary, speed, and language appropriate for each student’s level. Today, Santiago has left his teaching position at the University of Antioquia to teach online full-time. He is a top teacher of Spanish on the platform. Santiago not only has enough students to keep him fully employed, but he has an extremely high retention rate. Some of his students have now been with him for 3+ years, something unheard of on the platform. Of course, measuring this is important, so Santiago is sure to ask his students why they chose him. Over and over again, his students indicate his video as the one thing that lured them to schedule a trial lesson.

Many nonprofits, small businesses, and even large companies, are itching to take on expanded social media, content marketing, and digital campaigns without the necessary research that ensures a message will resonate with the target audience, regardless of the format in which it is delivered. There is often an assumption that the message is what customers want and need to know.

The truth is that many PR and marketing agencies fail in this area as well, citing that the client doesn’t want to pay for this kind of research. But it is absolutely a necessity in any strategic communication plan. Without it, you may very well end up unnecessarily explaining the birds and the bees.

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