Change, or Reinforce?

Do you know about the distinction - and it's a useful one - between communication that tries to reinforce and communication that tries to get change?

If you follow politics you'll already be familiar with this idea: Incumbents send messages that reinforce existing voter behavior, while challengers call for changes.

Any thoughtful marketing communication (and political communication is marketing communication) will be strongly influenced by this distinction, which affects not only the content, but also the presentation, and perhaps even the medium.

For example, suppose you own a bookstore and every couple of months you send a newsletter to all residences within a two mile radius.

Now, if you have good market share and you're profitable, you won't want to rock the boat. You'll want to reinforce existing behaviors (which include buying at your store).

On the other hand, if you just opened a new bookstore and need to take market share from other bookstores, then you want change existing book buying behavior.

Another example: Suppose your employee safety program has worked well for the past year and you want to maintain the practices that led to this longest-ever period without an accident. Your communication would reinforce. On the other hand, if the safety record was unacceptable, you would try to get change through your communication.

In a change situation, we want to upset the status quo, to challenge existing beliefs and ways of doing things. That means the words and style could be somewhat inflammatory.

We can do this by making bold claims or allegations: Just listen to, or look at, advertising claims like these: "If you shop at Joe's Bookstore, you may be paying too much!" or, "Drive a bit further and save a lot more at Jane's Bookstore!"

Change also might be hurried by painting negative scenarios , as in "Unless we get more efficient, senior management will outsource the whole department."

Tactically, change usually demands more communication, as in more often and more words or pages. As you can imagine, it takes more communication to drive change than to stay on the same course.

There are also tactics we can use to reinforce existing beliefs or actions.

To maintain the status quo we can stress a service record, as in, "Serving you with quality and service for 25 years." or "Your performance has been very good over the past year, Betty. Keep up the good work."

Reinforcement does not automatically rule out change; however, it emphasizes incremental and gradual change rather than major and abrupt change.

You can also appeal to shared values or experiences to reinforce. Nothing commits us to staying the course like emotional cues that link good times to the status quo. For example, consider the power of an advertising slogan that begins, "Remember when...." It connects a powerful, positive emotion with a product or service. By extension, the product or service offers an opportunity to relive that good time.

In summary, make a distinction in your communication between reinforcing and changing. Decide which way you want to go, and then choose the appropriate strategies, tactics, and tools.

Robert F. Abbott writes and publishes Abbott's Communication Letter. Learn how you can use communication to help achieve your goals, by reading articles or subscribing to this ad-supported newsletter. An excellent resource for leaders and managers, at: http://www.communication-newsletter.com

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