Advertising Marketing Strategy

Why Budget-Strapped Marketers Should Take a Risk on Specific Messaging

Illustration of a group of people crowding around a large push pin that's dug into a city street.

By Alan Carl \ November 20, 2019

If you want to make a real connection with another person, what do you do? If you’re like most of us, you don’t list your gender, birthplace, and job title. You tell a story about a moment in your life that captures the unique qualities of who you are. That’s because, to build bonds, we have to get specific. And yet, many budget-strapped marketing departments reject specificity in favor of generality.

Why is that?

The problem often begins with the budget-strapped part of the equation. Nonprofits, educational institutions, and other smaller organizations don’t have a lot to spend on marketing, so they try to reach as many people as possible with the few messages they can afford. The hope is, if they create broad messages intended for the general populace, they can appeal to more people and increase their donations, enrollments, or profits. They worry that messaging that’s too specific might leave someone out.

That attitude, while understandable, is flawed. No one is a “general” person. Which means, the more general your messaging is, the less likely you are to connect with anyone specific.

Generality isn’t just a problem for smaller organizations. How many car commercials have you seen that are so standard—so devoid of uniqueness—that you don’t even notice the brand being advertised? But bigger companies can afford a few broad, general messages because they have plenty of budget to spend on targeted marketing. If their TV ad is a dud, their social media campaign, online banner ads, billboards, product websites, or local promotions can come to the rescue. Smaller organizations don’t have that luxury.

In your world, you only have the budget for a limited number of messages. If those messages disappear into a bland background, they might as well not exist. “But isn’t being specific also a risk?” you might ask. In marketing, there’s always a risk. But being specific, in a strategic way, is the much better risk to take.

Let’s look at the reasons why.

Specificity is Part of Storytelling, and Storytelling Is Powerful

Psychologists, marketers, and neuroscientists have published reams of studies showing that storytelling has a powerful effect on us. In fact, we’re wired to respond to stories more than we respond to facts and data. That’s why politicians fill their speeches with stories of real people facing real struggles, and why the narrative format of the average TED Talk is a thousand times more fascinating than the graphs-and-figures format of the average PowerPoint.

Answering the question of what makes a good story would take up its own post (or book), but specificity is a major part of it. Neuroscientists have discovered that vivid details light up our brains as if we’re experiencing the details ourselves. The more specific you are, the more you engage an audience, not just on a surface level, but on a biological level.

However, not all specifics are equal. To light up the parts of the brain that make people the most receptive to persuasion, you have to use evocative specifics that put an audience in a real place/situation. Headlines that say “Earn Your MBA Online in One Year for $10,000” or “Your Donation Will Help Us Spay and Neuter 1,000 Stray Animals” may specifically state what you’re offering/asking but they are more like a PowerPoint than a Ted Talk. That doesn’t mean they’re useless or can’t work in certain instances, but you’ll struggle to build a larger messaging campaign (let alone a brand) around them because they don’t connect on any deeper level.

For deeper connections, you need the kind of specificity found in storytelling. More on that in a moment, but first, let’s look at a second way specificity can improve the effectiveness of your messaging.

Specificity Helps Create Common Ground

Research by social psychologists has shown that, if we feel that we have something in common with someone (or some organization), we’re more likely to be influenced by that person. In fact, the research has shown that creating a sense of commonality can increase successful deal closings by 35%.

Of course, it’s easy for a salesperson to note a customer has kids and then show photos of their own children. It’s trickier to craft a marketing message that creates common ground. To do so successfully, your messages have to speak in a way that makes your target audience feel like you understand them. Our headlines of “Earn Your MBA Online in One Year for $10,000” and “Your Donation Will Help Us Spay and Neuter 1,000 Stray Animals” may appeal to some people, but they don’t do anything to create a sense of understanding. At best, they are broadly aligned with some people’s general interests.

For a messaging campaign to create any real common ground, it has to get more specific. How? By knowing who you’re talking to and how to talk to them.

The Strategy of Specificity

Appealing to the broadest base of people possible sounds good in theory, but no organization will ever appeal to everyone. The majority of your donors, students, or customers come from a subset of the populace. As such, appealing strongly to that subset is a better approach than trying to appeal generally to everyone.

Specificity is the key to creating the strong messaging you need. But getting those specifics right requires researching your target audience and understanding who they are, what issues they face, and what motivates them to act. Once you understand all of that, you can create a messaging campaign that speaks directly to that audience.

Let’s say you’re the organization behind the headline “Earn Your MBA Online in One Year for $10,000.” While the messaging has gotten you some interest, you’re losing ground to other MBA programs with similar learning and price structures. Your audience research has uncovered that 80% of the students in your program are mothers who’ve taken a pause in their careers while their children are below school-age. To speak directly to this audience (and, thus, stand out to them), you reframe your messaging to be more specific. Your first ad features an image of a mother and child with the line “While They’re Learning to Walk, You’ll Learn to Manage a Forbes 500.” The one-year, $10,000 part becomes a subhead.

“But 20% of our students aren’t mothers with small children,” you might say. “Wouldn’t that ad leave those people out?”  It’s a fair concern. But it also misunderstands the power of specificity. According to neuroscience, the evocative details of the new headline will light up the parts of the audience’s brains associated with the joy of watching a toddler learn to walk and the joy of career success, whether or not any given audience member is currently parenting a toddler or wants to manage a top corporation. In other words, the specificity of the details puts every member of the audience in the mindset of a parent who wants to be there for her children while also advancing her career.

Psychologists call this the transportation effect. People place themselves in the situation of a story regardless of whether they’ve experienced the situation themselves. While someone without a toddler won’t 100% identify with the situation in the new ad, they will still respond to the feeling being evoked. And that feeling will allow them to relate to the situation and likely find similarities to it in their own lives.

For instance, maybe they’re looking at your program because they are caring for an elderly parent. Or maybe they have older children that still need a parent at home. Or maybe they simply want to be close to their new puppy. In all of those situations, the audience can relate to the feeling of being at home for important moments while still having the freedom to keep focused on career ambitions. And even if there’s absolutely nothing in their lives that currently resonates with the message, the specificity of the messaging helps build the emotional underpinnings of your brand, positioning you as a university that cares about people’s lives. Because of the transportation effect, the ad strongly connects with the target market (that 80%) while also emotionally connecting with the rest of the market.

If you were to take the same approach from a more general angle, you might come up with a headline like “Learn Business Skills While Taking Care of Responsibilities at Home.” While the general headline has the same basic meaning as the specific headline, it lacks the ability to evoke a visceral response and thus won’t connect on a deeper level. In a bit of irony, the attempt to be more common ends up inhibiting the effort to create common ground.

The power of specificity is the power to stand out against the bland background and make your audience feel that you understand them in a way that no other organization does. And it goes well beyond headlines. You can create specificity and take advantage of psychological realities like the transportation effect by choosing interesting photos, writing emails with personality, designing web pages with a UX tailored to your audience, and injecting uniqueness at every other level of your marketing.

The next time you’re developing a messaging campaign, consider the ways you can be more specific. It’s possible on even the smallest budgets. In fact, the smaller the budget, the more necessary specificity is. Because connecting with real people is far more effective than trying to connect with a nonexistent “general” person.

Alan Carl
Senior Writer & Content Strategist
Alan Carl
Senior Writer & Content Strategist

Alan is one part writer, one part strategist, and all parts wisdom and wit. He revels in the challenge of language and is a true lover of words. An excellent writer and collaborator, Alan has a knack for delivering clear, concise copy that’s always in line with clients' goals. Holding on to a grammar rule from grade school? He’ll help you let go. Holding on to the Oxford Comma? He’ll tell you it’s an “unnecessary adornment.” Still, he'll happily use it if that's your style.