Shifting attitudes to welfare: Insights into our 'change audience'

This is the third in a series of blogs talking about Shelter’s campaign to change public attitudes towards welfare.

You may have read Paul’s blog recently on Shelter’s campaign to soften the – sometimes quite toxic – debate on welfare, so that any political party will feel less emboldened to implement further cuts, and will work to improve the system moving forward.

Paul touched upon the audience we’re targeting and why they’re important for the campaign, but I’m going to talk a little more generally about what we call our politically salient ‘change audience’ –  the challenges we face when communicating with them, and how we try and overcome these.

First, a little bit about what we mean by politically salient, and ‘change audience’.

These people are different from our more active Shelter supporters. They don’t necessarily see themselves as politically engaged – they can be quite distrustful of politicians, and we’ve recently seen an ‘anti-establishment’ backlash which has further embedded this feeling. They’re quite sceptical of what political parties say they’re going to do, because they don’t necessarily believe it or don’t trust them to make good on their promises.

However – importantly – although they might be sceptical, they’re not apathetic. This means they do turn out to vote, and that’s why they’re so important for politicians to win over. For political parties, a lot of time is spent essentially ‘courting’ this group, understanding what it is they care about and what they’re motivated by. This allows political strategists to create policies that seem attractive to this audience, even if sometimes superficially. Our change audience have the power to influence Government policy, but they might not even realise it.

They also don’t necessarily engage with charity campaigns. They’ve seen a few controversies in the news recently involving charities and this has made them distrustful of us too. They’re also unlikely to do things like sign a petition or write to their MP, which is what we often ask our supporters to do, because they don’t think it will actually change anything. We’re realistic about what they will do, and we know we’re unlikely to turn them into highly engaged Shelter supporters, so we have to very carefully consider what we ask of them.

They’re also very protective over their personal data – things like e-mail addresses and telephone numbers. They think we’ll sell their data on (which we won’t), and because they don’t necessarily see themselves as affiliated with us, they might not want us to keep in touch with them like we might do with our supporters.

Finally – and importantly – they’re very ordinary, very typical people. When talking about a campaign’s target audience you can sound like you’re talking about an alien species. It’s people professionally working on campaigns that are a bit odd. The people mentioned here are not. They’re very typical, make up a large swathe of the country and are better known as each of our wider friends and family (unless you’ve got an impressively narrow social circle!).

The factors above though make it very difficult for us to try and get our message across to this audience, and even more so to start to bring them round to our way of thinking. We have to really think about our communications throughout our campaigns; we have to get away from our day-to-day work and understand how ordinary people see the world, in order to gain a better understanding of what messages work for them. We do this by gathering as much research and insight into our audience as we can, and by going out and hearing from people in focus groups, which allows us to gather real, first-hand insight into what they think of our materials and our messages.

We’ve written in previous blogs about how this can sometimes force us to confront some uncomfortable truths, and to hear opinions and viewpoints that we might not usually hear from the safety of our echo chamber. However, it’s really important that we listen to these views and try to understand them – rather than simply telling people we think they’re wrong. This would cause them to disengage with charities even more, and ultimately they’d just ignore our messages. Lose-lose.

What we try to do is meet our audience halfway. We start at a point where we both agree, try and find the values that unite people in order to move people on from their views and – in the case of our welfare campaign – talk about how the system could be improved.

We did this really successfully in the London Mayoral Election. This campaign targeted a slightly different audience to our campaign about welfare, because of the change we wanted to achieve, but the principles were similar. We took our audience for that campaign from not really caring about the housing crisis and thinking it doesn’t affect them, to seeing it as something that was really important. We spoke about housing in the context of this audience’s children – by pointing out that even though they might own their own home and be comfortable financially, it was their children who would suffer from a lack of affordable homes. When political parties came knocking on their doors, they told them they cared about housing, and we saw the issue shoot up the political agenda.

Our change audience are integral in our strategy to achieve political change on the issues we care about, and we’ll continue to dedicate a great deal of time and effort into finding out what makes them tick, and how we can use their collective voice to tell politicians that it’s time to act decisively on the housing crisis.