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Getting your message across when you can’t do it in-person

by Sarah Miers

Aug 18, 2020

Our Fellows and portfolio organizations spend a lot of time connecting with people in-person to change behaviors that lead to impact – at least they did before COVID. Given the global lockdowns, many of them have transitioned from in-person to remote interactions. Push messages, chatbots, interactive voice response (IVR), phone calls, video tutorials – you name it, they’re trying it. But do these kinds of interactions drive impact?

While they won’t replicate the full experience or impact of in-person programming, remote communication tools are cost effective, scalable, and – when done right – get results. Our friends with deep experience in this topic (like Precision Agriculture for Development, Digital Green and Development Media International) have shown through rigorous studies that well designed and well deployed remote communication tools do change behavior and lead to impact. Here’s what we’ve learned from them and our broader community of doers who have been working on this for years:

Make it accessible

Think about the kind of technology your target population uses. Then design explicitly for those tools: simple nudges via SMS, more detailed and engaging content via voice messages, or two-way communication (or even embedded video tutorials) via WhatsApp. We often focus on phone-based channels, but don’t overlook the potential of radio – it has broad distribution and is accessible to most low-income households. DMI has been changing health behaviors through radio for years. With schools closed, Rising Academies has begun to broadcast core education content on the radio (aptly called “Rising on Air”) while Ubongo is increasingly adapting their “edutainment” TV content to radio to reach more households with limited technology access.

Make it easy

You’ll lose your audience if they have to jump through hoops to access your content (like a long IVR phone tree). Dost learned this early on – they transitioned from a complex sign-up process to a simple dial-a-number-to-join method to get short audio messages (“phonecasts”) with their education content to busy parents. All parents have to do is make one call to sign up, then pick up the phone to receive content – it’s that easy.

Lets chat dost

Dost is easy to join and easy to use: just dial one number to sign up, and pick up the phone to receive their education content.

Make it engaging

You’ll also lose your audience if you can’t hold their attention. You’ve got to help them relate to the content and make them want to engage. DMI uses relatable stories, humor, and drama to convey key health messages. Digital Green gets model farmers from the community to star in story-like tutorial videos. Our friends in community health are increasingly using 2-way messaging to simulate a real conversation with a front-line worker (or at least a well-adjusted bot!). Get creative!

Make it targeted

It’s very easy to ignore a message that’s not specifically targeted to you (you know that feeling when nobody responds to a group text). Can you use existing data on your intended audience to better target your message, tailoring it to their specific situation? For example, PAD uses farmers’ location data to get them more precise advice based on their local soil and weather conditions.

We all miss being in person, but the global lockdowns present an opportunity to flex and build our remote communication capacities. As you strive to maintain impact during COVID, get creative on how you can transition some of your in-person interactions to engaging and targeted messages that are easy to navigate and reach your audience where they’re at. There are resources out there to help (we’re particularly excited about Turn.io’s Chat for Impact Accelerator) and organizations working hard to make this happen. Share your ideas and experiences, learn from your peers, and keep chatting!

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