Framing, segmentation and polling

If framing is the most important thing communicators do, audience segmentation comes a close second. If you set the frame you set the agenda, and if you identify the segment of the population you most need to convince, then much else about the communication (eg tone, channel and tactics) just falls out naturally.

A classic example of this was the 1993 Medicare campaign the blog’s firm undertook for the then government. The tactics focussed on large shopping centres because it was recognised that women were the nation’s health gatekeepers and one of the best ways to reach several generations of Australian women at one time was in these modern versions of the medieval cathedral square. Later research indicated that Medicare was almost as big an issue in the 1993 Federal election campaign as the GST. It also provided some of the basic foundation on which community support for Medicare, and opposition to dismembering it, rests.

Yet the blog is still mystified by how so much communication activity – particularly in politics and mass advertising – presupposes an Australia which doesn’t exist. For mass communications we see campaigns failing back on ‘families’ – especially among politicians – when the concept of the Australian family and household is changing dramatically.

This was brought home anew to the blog reading the first in a series of 10 articles in The Conversation (24 May 2016) on “major changes in family and relationships.” The first looked at some of the basic statistics:  in 2011 families still made up 71.5% of all Australian households but the number of people living alone is increasing; in 1911 the average household size was 4.5 people, by 2011 it was 2.6; the proportion of couple-only households has increased from 28% in 1976 to 37.8% in 2011; and, the proportion of couples with dependent children has decreased from 48.4% to 35.7% over the same 35 year period.

26% of children live in one parent or step and blended families; 22.1% of GLBT Australians had children and/or step children; and, 12.5% of the GLBT households had four or more children in them. Men and women are getting married later and staying married for longer; the proportion of children born to unmarried couples has increased from 10% in 1980 to 34.5% in 2011; in 2014 79.4% of couples lived together before marriage compared with 25% in 1977; divorce rates have fallen a bit recently; and, people are getting married older. There is, by the way, research in the US which suggests age at marriage, number of children, length of marriage and divorce rates are strongly correlated with socio-economic status but the blog is not aware of the Australian situation.

Given all this, many communicators ought to rethink their assumptions about how they frame communications and what tone they take. Sadly the political class – except with some nods to ‘acceptable’ multicultural and GLBT groups (and then not by the conservative wing of the Coalition – think Eric Abetz) tend to ignore these realities and keep talking about an Australia which only exists in their imagination and/or nightmares.

It should also be said, however, that the political class can be very good at targeting but that their targeting has as many, if not more, ugly sides than rational ones. For communicators as a whole, however, it explains why you really need to get a sense of what particular focus groups tell you. If you know who you are targeting focus group research is, if not solely used to test ugly lines and tap into prejudices, the richest source of information on framing and tactics.

Focus groups may also be telling a different story than the headline opinion polls which feel to the blog as if they might be a bit off this time. At the very least some recent polls have reported a growing number of undecideds which, depending on your allocation of them, can skew results significantly.  Then we need to remember that 2013 saw a record number of informal votes – will some of them vote formal this time and if so for which party?

Polling problems could be worse though. Just think of non-compulsory first past the post voting – as in the last UK elections – which can make the polls very misleading. The latest Brexit polls, for instance, seem tight but there is a swag of undecideds and we don’t know who will turn out to vote. Young voters, who would benefit most from the UK staying in the EU are more likely to favour staying but less likely to vote; and, older voters who are more likely to vote for Brexit are more likely to vote. Come June 24 we will know which was more significant.

And come July 2 we will know just how right or otherwise the polls are here. Nevertheless, the current disparity between betting markets and the polls is odd – the ALP is still at 7-2 and the odds of a hung Parliament are even longer – even though the polls are tightening and favouring the ALP. But as the blog said in a recent column – who knows?

Nevertheless, there is something we can know. The Australia many politicians and communicators are talking to isn’t the real one. Which reminds the blog of the third great communication principle which sits side by side with framing and segmentation – deep, authentic listening.