The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Know the Audience

Part of a Series: The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook

See Also: Anatomy of a Successful Humanist Ad Campaign

Have you ever had an argument with someone who just wouldn’t listen to your side, and didn’t seem to get where you were coming from? Perhaps they had a well-crafted argument, but centered on issues that weren’t particularly important to you, and so the argument didn’t hit home. Perhaps they simply didn’t let you talk, just interested in saying what they had to say. Or perhaps they dismissed your opinion out-of-hand, tried to belittle you or your view, and made you feel small.

Did you find them particularly persuasive, or did you wish they had at least made an effort to understand you?

This post outlines the central and overriding principle, the sine qua non of persuasion: Know the Audience. Gary Orren, Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and teacher of a legendary course on Persuasion (a class which once counted a young Barack Obama among its students), put Know the Audience atop the list of 21 principles empirically verified to improve the efficacy of a persuasive attempt.

Simply put, any persuasive effort should be targeted at a specific audience you wish to persuade, and should be crafted to be convincing to that same audience. This means that the first goal of any campaign is to Know the Audience. Understanding who your audience is, what they care about, and why they might be resistant to your message is the central task of any ad campaign, billboard design, activist attempt, and speech. Knowing the Audience is even more important than crafting your message: it’s what you do before you craft your message. To persuade, you must first listen.

This seems obvious, but is rarely consistently practiced. I know how easy it is, in the flow of constructing an argument, to forget that you are actually presenting it to someone: I get so caught-up in my own ideas, that I fail to consider the point of view of the audience. More often, people craft their argument first, and only then, once the main pieces are in place, make minor tweaks to fit it to a given audience.

This process should be reversed: most of our time should be spent researching the audience, seeing what they care about, the language they use to talk about their concerns, the reasons they might be skeptical of our point of view. Only after you know the audience should we shift to crafting our own message.

Moreover it is critical, when trying to persuade someone of a point of view they are opposed to, to show your audience that you understand their viewpoint, even though you disagree with it. The opening vignette dramatizes what happens when someone doesn’t do this.

Therefore, when crafting a persuasive message, it is essential to consider the following questions:

  1. Who do I want to persuade (who is my target audience?)?
  2. What do I want to persuade them to think or do (what are my goals?)?
  3. What do they care about most (what is salient to them?)?
  4. Why might they be resistant to my persuasive effort (specificity is essential: for what specific reasons are they opposed?)?
  5. What is the most appropriate medium to reach this audience?
  6. Might my choice of medium reach others who are not part of my target audience, and how will they react?
  7. How can I craft a message that is salient to my audience (according to Question 3), and overcomes the concerns we have identified in Question 4?
  8. How can I show the audience I understand their point of view (even though I disagree with their view or actions)?

These questions are important for any persuasion attempt, but they are particularly important for freethinkers, who are frequently engaged in acts of persuasion relating to people’s deepest values. When we are discussing religion, as we frequently do, we are often dealing with beliefs and practices intimately linked to a person’s family background, community, and culture, and which they may be extremely closely wedded to. in such situations the importance of knowing the audience, in the sense of deeply understanding them, and showing that we understand them, becomes even greater.

Case Study: American Atheists Billboards

As a movement, we do not always succeed in demonstrating that we know and understand our audience. A comparison of two billboards by American Atheists makes this clear.


Target Audience and Goals (Questions 1 and 2)

Both billboards, according to Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists, are targeted toward people who participate in religious practices and communities but who no longer believe in the truth of the doctrines promoted there. Of the first, he said “A lot of people in church, a lot of people in the mosque, a lot of people in the synagogue know they’re praying to air.” Of the second: “We’re reaching out to Americans who attend religious services even though they know it’s a scam”. In addition, he hoped the billboards would “raise the awareness of the organization and the movement.”

Raising awareness is not precisely a persuasive goal, so it’s not centrally-relevant to this post, but it’s worth noting that, given the large amounts of media attention both billboards received, they succeeded mightily on this front. This isn’t something to overlook: it is certainly beneficial, all other things being equal, for people to know about your organization and what it cares about. It’s also likely that American Atheists increased their membership due to this increased visibility. But here, I’m concerned with their persuasive power: is it likely that either one really convinced people who, for whatever reasons, currently continue to practice a religion they don’t believe in, to change their minds and behavior and become an open atheist (note this is different than simply joining the group – people could join and not be open about joining, and many of those joining could already be open atheists who simply weren’t members before)?

Characteristics of Target Audience (Questions 3 and 4)

With any audience as broad as this, it is difficult to be specific when it comes to audience characteristics. However, some educated guesses can be made:

  • They almost certainly have religious family members, most probably their parents. The vast majority of Americans are religious, and older generations (who comprise the parents of today’s adults) are more likely to be religious than younger generations.
  • They were probably raised in a religious tradition, most likely some form of Christianity. This means they may have memories and experiences related to their religious upbringing.
  • They almost certainly have work-colleagues and friends, who they care about, who are religious.
  • They are probably not single. The majority of American adults are not single, and if you are single and an atheist, there are fewer reasons why you would not be open about your atheism already (although there are still  many reasons). They may have a religious spouse or partner, therefore.
  • The preceding four points are made more likely by the fact these atheists are not open about their beliefs: it is much more likely that an atheist surrounded by atheist friends and family members will have no trouble being openly atheist, and therefore there will be fewer among the target population who do not fall into the categories outlined above.
  • They are probably aware of discriminatory views of atheists held by the public: studies demonstrating such prejudice have been widely reported, and discriminatory statements are relatively common in the media, often made by high-profile public figures.
  • They almost certainly have a variety of religious communities they can access nearby (they are seeing these billboards, so they probably have a car, and religious spaces are all over the place in America).
  • They probably know some of the more high-profile atheist authors, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
  • They are probably feeling some discomfort over the incoherence of hiding their true beliefs in an extremely religious society, feeling they lack integrity or honesty that entails. They may have been hiding their atheism for a long time, and this may have caused some pressure to reveal themselves.
  • They may have strong feelings of resentment directed at religion due to harm that has been cause by it, but this is likely a minority position (since the vast majority of people do not perceive themselves to suffer concrete harm at the hands of a religious group or individual. Whether they are in fact so-harmed is disputable).
  • The reasons why people become atheists are under-studied, but this series of posts by Sociologist Bradley Wright and others offers some helpful insight. Particularly useful is the large number of people they find who leave Christianity due to perceived failures of God, either moral or personal (God fails to stop suffering, or fails to answer prayers – Wright interprets his results slightly differently to this, but I think my analysis of the evidence he presents is a little more helpful here).
Having identified these characteristics, we can imagine some reasons why the target audience might be resistant to be open about their atheism:
  • They may fear negative reaction from family, partners, friends, and coworkers.
  • They may have positive attachments to some aspects of their religious upbringing, and feel some sense of betrayal if they “leave that behind”.
  • They may need to make use of the resources their religious communities offer, such as childcare, or appreciate the community such a setting provides, and fear losing that community.
  • They may not know any other atheists with whom they discuss the issue in person (i.e. they lack an atheist community of their own which could support them).
  • They may have internalized some of the prejudiced social views regarding atheists, fearing that identifying themselves as “atheist” openly would imply something negative about them.
  • They may not themselves identify with some of the rhetoric of the more famous atheist authors, feeling it is too aggressive or dismissive (regardless of whether this is true, the target audience may feel it to be true, which is the important consideration here).

Which Medium is Best to Reach Your Audience (Questions 5 and 6)?

Having characterized the target audience, we must ask “Is a billboard the best way to reach these people?” In my view, this is a tough call. There’s no doubt in my mind that the online and TV coverage of this campaign reached more of the target audience than the billboard itself, which most certainly reached more religious people than in-hiding atheists. This is potentially problematic, especially given the negative reaction these billboards (particularly the second) were likely to provoke (and did provoke).With such controversial billboards, however, you get a whole lot of media attention, which means that you are effectively communicating with multiple forms of media at once. Therefore, even though it isn’t an online or TV campaign, it becomes an online and TV campaign due to the response.

Nonetheless, the question must be asked, is it necessary to have the billboard at all? Perhaps it wouldn’t be possible to generate so much coverage in other media with a less public form of campaign. On the other hand, the money used to put up the billboard could probably buy a lot of internet ads. And, of course, the art for the billboards (which isn’t bad in comparison to many atheist billboards) can be used online. So it’s a tough call. Given the wide coverage in multiple media, let’s say the choice of billboard as medium was a success.

Crafting the Message (Questions 7 and 8)?

Given the careful analysis of the target audience just pursued, how do the billboards fare in terms of targeting the issues salient to the target, and overcoming their reasons for resistance? The answer is different for each billboard. The first, “You KNOW it’s a Myth”, addresses three of the issues salient to the audience: first, their concern that they don’t know any other atheists; second, their sense of internal incoherence regarding their atheist-in-hiding status; third, the negative stereotypes of atheists they may have internalized. The presence of the billboard alone, advertising American Atheists as it does, addresses the first of these concerns, as does the tagline “Reasonable since 1963″, which demonstrates atheists have been around for a while. The second is addressed more directly with the call to “celebrate reason”, with the confirmatory, direct, “You KNOW it’s a Myth” (the fact that “KNOW” is fully capitalized rather than “Myth” drives this home – a good decision). Finally, the dual references to reason, a trait generally held in positive regard (at least in relation to science), target the negative stereotypes of atheists that some may have internalized by demonstrating commitment to a positive ideal.

However, I question whether these issues are the most salient ones to the target audience. Compared to the potential of losing loved ones, jobs, positive memories and traditions, or useful social services, my suspicion is that the offer of what amounts to intellectual integrity does not seem so great. Indeed, even if the internal incoherence and lack of other atheists nearby were the main factors holding people back, the billboard does nothing to truly alleviate these conditions except say “We – a (literally, in this ad) faceless organization exist somewhere, and we agree with you!” When the potential fallout of embracing an atheist identity is the breakdown of your marriage, your relationship with your parents, or your business connections,  this seems like scant consolation. It also misses, probably, the main reasons why they became an atheist in the first place: God’s failings.

Further, the billboard may actually reinforce some of the target’s fears. By choosing to depict the nativity scene, a mighty cultural-narrative which every target is presumed to know, the billboard conjures an image of one of the most positive things about Christianity: the family bonding, gift-giving, and goodwill of Christmas, along with all the happy memories spending the holidays with the very family they are being asked to disappoint. “Reason”, on the other hand – the thing to be celebrated – is left abstract and distant, a word without an image. Nonbelievers-in-hiding are asked, essentially, “This year, celebrate an abstract concept over a powerful cultural narrative and the associated positive memories it may hold for you and your family!” I am someone profoundly committed to intellectual integrity, and I don’t know if I would make that choice.

Nonetheless, this billboard does address some issues of concern to the audience, so might well have some persuasive effect. The second, You KNOW they’re all SCAMS”, is much worse. By changing “Myths” to “SCAMS”, the billboard is essentially doing two things: imputing direct agency and malicious intent to the religious. A myth can come about without someone seeking to create it – this happens all the time. A scam, by contrast, is perpetrated by somebody or a group, directly. A myth might be benign, and needn’t be malicious – some are very valuable. A scam is always malicious. Therefore the billboard is saying not just that religious people are mistaken, but that they are intentionally misleading people for their own gain and to the detriment of others.

Now, remember our audience and their concerns. These religious “scam artists” are their parents, their family, their friends, and their colleagues. They may, despite the atheist’s atheism, be people they admire, who have played a significant role in their lives. People they like. And here’s a billboard calling them, implicitly, consciously-dishonest schemers or easily-manipulated fools. And it’s asking them to come hang out with the people who made that accusation.

I don’t think that’s going to be very persuasive to the average atheist-in-hiding. It may well be persuasive to those harmed by religion (I think, it’s fair to say, a minority of the non-disclosed nonreligious, at least in their own minds), and those who have been yearning to speak out for a long time. It will almost certainly excite and activate currently open-atheists, probably convincing them to come to the meet and join American Atheists. And this isn’t nothing – it’s important and valuable to any organization, and therefore the campaign is far from valueless. But this was not the persuasive goal of the campaign (see an upcoming post on the difference between Conversion and Activation). To many non-declared atheists the scam wording will reinforce their fears and turn them off.  I can imagine such a person thinking “If being an atheist means calling religion a scam, then that will mean separating myself further from the people I love, and I’m not willing to do that”. The billboard achieves the opposite of what it wishes to achieve, with the majority of the target audience. That means fewer atheists coming out of hiding, not more. And all because the stated target audience was not at the forefront of the message-makers’ minds.


This post has demonstrated the necessity of knowing one’s target audience well before crafting a message to persuade them to act. Indeed, knowing the audience is the most important thing: more important than what you have to say is what your audience has to say. Future posts will begin to show what American Atheists might have done instead to better address the concerns of their target audience, but for now, remember that to persuade, we must first listen!

About James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and has been working on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard Graduate, and is currently studying for his Doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

6 comments on “The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Know the Audience

  1. Well done! I’ll have to use the points made here in my own talks with potential closet atheists. However, I can’t help but wonder that, even though they won’t admit it, the stated primary goal of American Atheists with these billboards was actually merely their secondary goal; at least the “SCAMS” one.

    One of the reasons I joined American Atheists is because I see them as one of the more antagonistic atheism advocacy groups. I see antagonism as a positive force, when used sparingly. AA is not afraid to do that.

    • Great Joe! Glad you found this helpful. I suspect you might be right regarding AA’s motives. Perhaps stoking up controversy and activating their supporters is more their goal than reaching those who are on the fence. But if so, why not say so?

  2. Pingback: The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Steel, Velvet, and the Honorable Duelist | The Humanist Community Project

  3. As an outspoken atheist I am aware of the limitations my style may have. I am being outspoken in a way which come natural to me. I don’t think there is a wrong way to be outspoken as long as you are not harming others. We should not expect every message to be aimed at the majority of people nor is it easy to say exactly who that majority is. From my experience you never can guess what kind of crazy approach is going to catch on and spread. Yes we need people to study what is going to be most effective but we also need the random element. You mention not knowing why people become atheists. I’ve wondered that myself, so I started asking them. I’m up to 64 people you may find it interesting I’d be happy to have you as a guest or anyone else who is so inclined.

    • I think the issue here is not really about outspokenness. I am hugely in favor of outspoken atheists. What I am not in favor of is ineffective ones who fail to achieve their own stated goals. The post on Steel and Velvet addresses this question directly:

      However, I do agree there is room for trials to see what catches on. The best way to do this is not through a large campaign but in experimental A/B testing. We intend to start some testing of this sort at the Humanist Community Project in the next couple of years!

      I’d be delighted to speak with you whenever you like on your show! =D

  4. Pingback: The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – What Do I Mean by “Evidence”?

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