Advocates, Antagonists & Agnostics: The wisdom of focusing our efforts

Whether it’s winning voters in an election or acquiring new customers, we have a tendency to focus our efforts on those who either strongly agree or disagree with us – but what about the people who aren’t acting on their beliefs?” 

This article was originally posted on The Conduit Club website.

As we head into the U.S. election season this fall, we’ll undoubtedly see an overwhelming number of advertisements attempting to persuade US citizens to vote for one candidate or the other. But as we all know, the vast majority have already made up their minds – and those who haven’t typically are not very engaged in the political process. Thus, the more telling question is not whom individuals will support, but whether or not they will act on their preferences and actually vote.

In fact, voter turnout was only 60% in the closely contested 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. This reality speaks to a larger dynamic (and lesson), which is relevant to a wide range of advocacy and communications challenges, including the environment, diversity/inclusion and inequality.

In our world of data science and digital communications, we now have the unprecedented ability to segment people (based on demographics and/or their behavior) and send them micro-targeted messages. Yet a far simpler approach can also be quite effective. It simply divides people into three primary audiences, whom I’ll call the Advocates, the Antagonists and the Agnostics.

The Advocates are those who truly believe in your cause, as they’ve already been convinced.

It’s comforting and worthwhile to speak with fellow Advocates, as we all need others to support our efforts and help us spread the word.  However, we tend to spend too much time ‘preaching to the converted’ – or worse yet, assuming that the messaging that resonates with them will also be effective with others.

The Antagonists are those who actively disagree.

It’s tempting to speak at length with Antagonists, as we all love the satisfaction of winning an argument – and the potential thrill of converting the opposition. But often, these people take up too much of our time and mental energy. Generally speaking, it is wasted time, as they are not open to persuasion.  

The Agnostics are those who nod their heads and agree with you, yet they aren’t acting on it.

Agnostics may support the cause in theory, but they can’t really be bothered (to vote, to donate, to volunteer and so forth).  On many issues – such as the environment – they are arguably the largest group.  More importantly, Agnostics are the audience most likely to be influenced, as moving people to act is typically far easier than convincing them to change their minds. However, we frequently make key mistakes in speaking with Agnostics as we:  

  • Try to further educate them, when they already know and agree.  
  • Want them to care more, mistakenly assuming that this will lead to action.

These missteps are rooted in continued attempts to persuade or to motivate Agnostics, when our goal should be to move them from intent to action. In other words, we should be thinking less about marketing – and more about behavioral science.  

Making it easy to take action

A good place to start is with Professor Richard Thaler’s mantra: ‘If you want people to do something, make it easy.’

Making it easy involves uncovering and removing the “micro-barriers” that prevent Agnostics from acting on their positive intentions. And in our experience, we’ve found that confusion and complexity is the most prevalent micro-barrier, as even quite small questions or frustrations often trigger people to opt-out of new activities.  Thus, the goal should be to remove any unnecessary words or steps that lie between the person and the desired action.

Defaults (such as automatic registration and renewed giving) are an extreme version of this concept, as they eliminate the need for Agnostics to take any action.  But simply reducing the number of ‘clicks’ required to make a donation or volunteer has been shown to have a significant impact. 

Of course, easiness is only one of many human “heuristics” that can be leveraged to gently “nudge” positive behaviors.  For example, to promote student registration and voting on university campuses, we’ve:

  • Helped students to make a voting plan (of where/when they will vote) in advance, to reduce potential confusion and opt-out – and trigger a sense of Pre-Commitment.
  • Utilized contests, both between schools and among different student groups, to inject fun and emotion – and leverage the right Transmitters (i.e. friends, teammates, etc.).
  • Increased salience (via campus signage, social media and “I’ve voted” buttons) to serve as timely visual reminders – and activate Social Norms (i.e. “Everybody’s voting”).

The results have been impressive, as these efforts at University of Chicago (via ChiVotes) led over 80% of the school’s undergraduates to register to vote in the 2018 mid-term elections. 

Of course, voting is only one area in which there are many Agnostics, who would like to ‘do the right thing’ but require some help in moving from intent to action. For many other causes, the key to further progress lies not in convincing Antagonists – nor even in further motivating or inspiring Advocates – but rather in helping people act on their existing beliefs. This will require directing efforts towards these Agnostics – and applying Behavioral Science tools and tactics to help them move from Intent to Action.

Scott Young is a member of the BVA Nudge Consulting UK, a global consultancy specialized in driving successful behavioral change.  Scott transitioned to this role after 20+ years leading Perception Research Services (and later PRS IN VIVO), a top-25 global insights agency.  Scott is passionate about finding “win-win-win” opportunities (that benefit companies, consumers and society) – and in applying behavioral science to help individuals and organizations make better decisions and adopt more sustainable habits.