OK, COP26 attendees, we get it, it’s a zoo. You’re trying to find somewhere to park your Gulf Stream jet; your 4,500-pound-a-night hotel room has rats; you stood in line in the rain to get into the conference, only to watch the debates on a laptop. Most of us, however, have been watching it unfold online, as brands, agitators, and governments vie for our attention.
So who’s winning, and who’s losing? I’ve spent years measuring what kind of content appeals to certain audiences. My company can predict what an audience will love and what they won’t. Our model shows that there are 32 different kinds of engaging content, from slapstick comedy to news updates, and we can predict which genres will make a person lean forward—or switch off. So the key to creating content that cuts through the news is to know your audience and create messages using genres that appeal to them.
Our model uses data from 32,000 people worldwide who shared their content preferences with us. We display that data in wheels: The bars pointing outward mean that this audience is more likely than average to engage with a particular genre. The bars pointing inward mean—you guessed it—an audience is less likely to dig that kind of messaging.
Strategy 1: I’m part of the solution, honest
If you’re a big legacy business like Ford or Coca-Cola, you were born in a happy world when plastics were the future and CO2 was just something that made drinks fizzy. Now you have to persuade people that you’ve moved beyond that world. And the people you need to convince the most are those who are already moving to a more sustainable life in the way they behave, shop, and invest. So what kind of communications appeals to people who regularly consume content on green living? Here’s what our data says:
Unsurprisingly, these folks are into social good, authoritative opinions, and big ideas—they’re the kind of people who watch TED talks and dig Bill Gates. They admire leaders who are changing the world, and they listen to experts. They’re also into life-coaching: learning to improve themselves as well as the environment. Humor, not so much.
Google is going all-in on Big Ideas and Wonder, two genres that play well with this audience. Google Arts & Culture is making COP26 accessible to anybody with an Internet connection, and as this audience likes Authoritative Opinion, they’ll be interested in what the heavy hitters have to say.
Salesforce is also doing some nice work, with films fronted by Jane Goodall. Authoritative opinion doesn’t get more authoritative than hers. They’re creating a platform for ecopreneurs to connect and get the resources they need to scale-up their projects. Big ideas, wondrous technologies, personal growth, social good—this presses a lot of hot buttons for the Planeteers.
Hyundai’s film is a full eco-bullshit-bingo-card of whales, kids in the developing world, cute animals, and “smol” plants. Its message, that Hyundai will get around to doing something by the time your baby has a college degree, is, frankly, depressing.
GSK is going to remove 90% of the CO2 emissions from its—go on, guess . . . Factories? Supply chain? Private jets? No. Inhalers. I mean, every little helps, but this just doesn’t have the epic scale to even capture the imagination of this audience.
The most serious environmental health risk worldwide is #airpollution.
To tackle it, we all need to reduce carbon emissions. That’s why we’ve started an R&D programme which has the potential to reduce emissions from some of our inhalers by 90%: https://t.co/DlvJjiZm36 #COP26 pic.twitter.com/dTFHivQRfK
— GSK (@GSK) November 2, 2021
Strategy 2: Preaching to the unconverted
Some companies are flipping the conversation around, focusing on what consumers can do to help. Unlike the first strategy, this is more about educating people who aren’t changing their behaviors (i.e. munching burgers in their fast-fashion clothes). Persuading skeptical people is notoriously difficult, but somebody has to! So what engages the green refuseniks? It’s mainly loud stuff: dark and outrageous humor, parody, and a bit of slapstick. Thrills and outrage also press their buttons. Don’t life-coach them, that’s going to go down like a bowl of cold quinoa. However, police attempting to arrest a giant inflatable Loch Ness Monster? Like and share, baby.
The UN’s Jurassic-Park-meets-Dead-Poet’s-Society film features a dinosaur addressing world leaders, pointing out that at least dinosaurs didn’t subsidize giant asteroids. Fair point. Parody, dark, deadpan, some thrills, plus Jack Black.
Alpro also has a nice parody, mocking eco-warriors for choosing discomfort over convenience, and offering up milk alternatives as an easy fix. It’s funny, charming, and the opposite of preaching.
Time Out aims to hit us where it hurts, imagining a world where some of our favorite cool places could be underwater. But this audience isn’t really into its cultural hot lists, so it isn’t going to be too bothered when the Rijksmuseum sinks under the waves. Nice try, though.
With sea levels rising worldwide, several major metropolises are at risk of being submerged ????https://t.co/WdpqaKBaMy
— Time Out London (@TimeOutLondon) November 3, 2021
Don’t get me wrong, I love Greta and she is an absolute meme queen. Judging by the comments underneath her tweet, though, her humor is a bit subtle for this audience. Can she just start throwing custard pies? Tell her our AI says it would be OK.
I am pleased to announce that I’ve decided to go net-zero on swear words and bad language. In the event that I should say something inappropriate I pledge to compensate that by saying something nice. #COP26
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) November 3, 2021
Strategy 3: Legislators need to legislate
Some organizations are skipping the consumers and going straight for the legislators. These people are highly analytical; as you’d expect from policy wonks, they want opinions from people they trust. They like a bit of satire (probably, laughing at their enemies), and they hate heartwarming stories, social good, and pictures of cute animals. Yes, everything you suspect about politicians is true.
Greenpeace has done a nice job of calling out the U.K.’s Boris Johnson, who’s been trying to push responsibility away from legislation and onto consumers. It’s elegantly done, even if you can’t shame shameless people.
We see what you’re saying, @BorisJohnson.
— Greenpeace UK (@GreenpeaceUK) November 3, 2021
Unilever has been The Big Sustainable Business Thinker for some years now. They’ve realized that the CEO has to own any environmental campaign, and has to be out there front and center, talking to politicians and shareholders.
— Unilever #TogetherForOurPlanet ???? (@Unilever) November 3, 2021
Finnish wood and paper giant UPM is also making a great case for sustainable-building materials, and the need for legislation to help with that. There are huge opportunities to be thought leaders in these niche spaces—and they’re taking advantage of it.
Is the IPCC report on climate change really a ‘code red for humanity’? While much of the damage is irreparable and irreversible, all is not lost. Find out what can be done. #ClimateAction #COP26 #ClimateCodeRed
— UPM (@UPMGlobal) November 3, 2021
WWF’s call for legislation falls wide of the mark, wringing its hands and muttering that really, some chaps ought to do something about this. Be specific. Be authoritative. Thought leaders need to think things, not just point dumbly. This doesn’t get you a seat at the top table.
????️ The #ClimateCrisis does not start at 1.5°C warming – it's already here.
????World leaders must act now to keep warming below 1.5°C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
— WWF (@WWF) November 3, 2021
Strategy 4: The big silence
What if your target audience is nobody? Some companies really don’t have a lot of good stories to tell about the environment, and using the #COP26 hashtag can be an invitation for some record-breaking pile-ons. The oil majors and most luxury brands seem to have given their social media teams a few weeks off. And that’s probably for the best.
Doing nothing is a hard strategy to adopt, but it can work really well. Keep quiet, do good works, don’t draw attention to yourself, wait for people to notice. I think of it as the Princess Anne gambit. She went from pariah to national treasure—and so can you.
What can we learn?
Social media isn’t just for screaming into the abyss as the ice caps melt, fun as that can be. First, know your audience. Take the message to them in the genres they’re most receptive to. Comedy can be a great medium for changing skeptical people’s minds—when you’ve made somebody laugh, you’ve made a connection with them. When you’re talking about the future, appeal to our sense of wonder, not fear. The solutions to the climate crisis will be epic—think our moon mission, our societies’ pyramids and cathedrals. Avoid tokenism, excite world leaders with your big ideas, and demand that they bring their own. And if you’ve got nothing to bring to the table, then go and find something. And in the meantime, STFU.
Brian Millar is cofounder of Paddle Consulting, a company that measures the engagement preferences of global audiences. @paddlepowered