Brands spend a ton of resources researching what motivates their current and potential consumers to buy products and services. In fact, billions go into this process each year to determine why we grab Dove soap off the shelves as opposed to Irish Spring, or why we might fancy the Toyota Rav4 over the Chevy Equinox.
In contrast, when it comes to advocacy, remarkably little research has been done exploring the psychological motivations that drive activism and engagement. But to be the most effective advocacy organization, it’s wise to explore and understand what motivates your supporters.
What motivates people to engage in advocacy campaigns? It’s probably high time for more thought and study in this arena. The most comprehensive study I found to date was conducted by researchers at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom.
The 2016 paper focused on insights behind what motivates political participation and engagement, and looked at activities far beyond the simple act of voting.
The researchers looked rather deeply into the differences between the motivations behind online and offline engagement, whether intrinsic factors (such as feeling a sense of accomplishment) or extrinsic factors (such as showing off to friends or online acquaintances) were stronger forces behind such motivations. They surveyed more than 2,000 British adult citizens and unearthed some interesting results, which could be helpful for U.S. advocacy efforts. Here are five lessons:
- Both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards combined to create a positive influence on motivation for political engagement. In other words, people enjoyed both feeling and appearing like virtuous citizens.
- Regardless whether the activity was online or offline, extrinsic rewards were the most significant drivers of participation. This is noteworthy because higher-effort offline activity (marching, volunteering at a phone bank, knocking on doors) was historically seen as being more intrinsically driven, while lower-effort online activity (posting on Facebook, emailing an elected official, signing an online petition) was perceived as a means for looking good in front of online “friends.” Previous prevailing theory held that offline work was harder and took more time. As a result, participants had to be driven by a sense of internal “greater good” rather than “look at me.”
- Despite the extrinsic motivations, survey participants generally reported that offline engagement was more self-fulfilling.
- Organizations not only encourage actions from their committed followers in order to spread the word and create “real world” value, but they can also encourage the belief that those actions will carry recognition and rewards.
- Messages from organizations or corporations that provide extrinsic motivations to act might, in the longer-term, strengthen intrinsic motivations by making those who act feel good about themselves.
Advocacy professionals inherently understand that response is more important than the size of the initial database whether it’s for fundraising, patch throughs, door-knocking, or fly-ins. A relatively small number of passionate people will create a deeper impact than a much larger group whose members aren’t as motivated.
Learning about, and truly understanding, your advocates’ motivations in as much granular detail as possible can make your candidate, or issue campaign much more effective.
John Dunagan is the president of Highland Advocacy Group.