In This Issue
Summer Issue of The Bridge on Changing the Conversation about Engineering
June 27, 2011 Volume 41 Issue 2

Framework for a Coordinated Outreach Campaign

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Author: Maria Ivancin

Despite many challenges, the engineering community is poised to launch an effective outreach campaign.

Joining forces for protection, to achieve a common goal, or to take advantage of an opportunity is not a new idea. Countries have formed alliances to fight common foes. Political parties have joined forces to advance an issue. In the business world, companies have recognized the need for cooperation and coordination with suppliers, nonprofits, and even competitors to achieve their objectives. Partnerships, joint ventures, cooperatives, and other business entities have recognized that organizational goals can often be more effectively and efficiently achieved by entering into agreements with others.

These types of arrangements often involve outreach efforts (communicating or marketing to an audience or public), which have their own peculiarities in the field of marketing. As the engineering community embarks on a campaign to “change the conversation” and promote engineering to young people and the general public, it might be helpful to draw upon lessons learned from other coordinated outreach campaigns.

Definitions

There is no universally accepted definition of a coordinated outreach campaign, although there are many good examples of them. However, one definition that encompasses the broad range of outreach would be any communication/advocacy/marketing/branding/promotional effort involving more than a single entity working cooperatively and with a unified message strategy to achieve a single goal or serve a shared interest.

The heart of a coordinated outreach campaign is in the words “working cooperatively and with a unified message strategy to achieve a single goal or to serve a shared interest.” As these words imply, there must be (1) a reason for entering into a coordinated outreach campaign (e.g., a problem that must be solved or an opportunity to be pursued) and (2) a commitment to working cooperatively.

The words “unified message strategy” are essential, because this strategy is what makes an outreach effort a campaign. These words suggest that planning is involved and that messages are designed to meet the goals of the campaign. The message strategy is also important because it is based on recognition of the role of the target audience, from whose perspective the campaign must be understood to be about a single thing and not about the different points of view of the participating entities.

According to Raising Public Awareness of Engineering (NAE, 2002), the engineering community as a whole spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote public understanding of engineering, but because the messages were not developed as a unified campaign, they were not very effective. A subsequent report, Changing the Conversation (NAE, 2008), recommended a unified voice for the engineering community in the form of an overall message strategy.

There are many reasons for entering into a coordinated outreach campaign. Some of the more prominent ones are discussed below.

Reasons for Launching a Campaign

Increasing Demand

Got Milk? is the quintessential example of a coordinated outreach campaign. Initiated by the California Milk Processor Board in 1993 to increase milk consumption in California, it was adopted by dairy boards around the country, and by all accounts, it has been a success. Awareness of the campaign, which continues to this day, reached 90 percent by 1995 (www.gotmilk.com) (Manning, 2006).

Got Milk? is a “generic product promotion,” that is, a campaign to increase sales by focusing on a product category, leaving brand promotion to individual participants in the campaign. This kind of campaign can increase demand, thereby improving the marketing environment for an entire industry. This is often referred to as “increasing the size of the pie,” which means that each member’s piece gets larger, but the percentage share is not necessarily affected.

Commodity foods have been the subjects of coordinated campaigns for decades (e.g., Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner; Pork, the Other White Meat; the Incredible Edible Egg; Orange Juice, It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore). These campaigns, which have been highly visible because they target the general public, require large budgets. Many are legislated, and participation by farmers and producers may be mandated to ensure that sufficient funding is available for the campaign to have the desired impact.

Influencing the Legislative and Regulatory Environment

Commodity campaigns are not just for food products, although these may be the most recognizable examples. Industry associations also undertake such campaigns to monitor and influence the industry’s legislative and regulatory environment. Although much of the communication is through direct contact with policy makers, efforts sometimes spill over into the realm of customers, the workforce, or even the general public.

For example, an association may use a coordinated outreach campaign to advocate for certain issues (e.g., environmental issues) and bring the discussion to the broader voting public. Sometimes these kinds of campaigns take on the appearance of public service announcements to forestall government regulation. A prominent example is a responsible-drinking campaign funded by the alcohol industry.

For the engineering community, a coordinated campaign might be aimed at influencing federal spending on R&D or support for university engineering programs or STEM programs in local school systems.

Workforce Recruitment

Coordinated outreach campaigns might also be used to promote workforce recruitment. In some industries and professions, competition for employees can be every bit as fierce as competition for customers. Just as generic product promotion can increase demand for a product, workforce-focused coordinated outreach campaigns can increase the supply of potential employees.

In some cases, societal trends, such as immigration, education, or demographic or lifestyle changes, affect the workforce. These issues are best addressed on the industry (or profession) level. In other cases, the image of an industry or profession may keep people from entering that particular field.

Workforce issues are a key focus of outreach efforts for the engineering community, but this issue must be approached on two levels. A coordinated campaign can help stimulate interest among students to pursue engineering degrees and careers, but for such a campaign to be effective, there must also be an overall change in the way engineering is perceived.

Image Building

General image building can be part of generic promotion and the workforce issue, or it can be the primary purpose of a campaign.  Some industries or professions (e.g., funeral directors, the oil industry after the BP spill) have a high threshold to cross to create a positive public image.

Image building campaigns can be “external,” that is, the target audience may be important to the industry even though it is not directly related to it (e.g., customers, potential workers, legislators). Or the campaign can be “internal,” that is, directed to people currently in the industry to improve morale or increase professional pride. General image campaigns may follow a crisis that befalls an industry, a time when pooled resources and a unified voice can be more effective than individual voices.

BOX 1   

In the 21st century, our nation should have a vibrant economy, a healthy and secure populace, and a high standard of living. To meet this goal we must increase the quantity, quality, and diversity of our engineering workforce. To achieve that, we need to change the way people perceive and talk about engineering.

– NAE President Charles M. Vest
(Changing the Conversation website, http://www.engineeringmessages.org)


Other Goals

A campaign to change the conversation about engineering will have several goals. It will certainly address the workforce issue, but it must be much broader than that. Encouraging young people to pursue careers in engineering will require that the profession also have a favorable image and that the public have a better understanding of what engineers do.

The engineering community must develop a unique, favorable, compelling brand identity that convinces the target audiences to view engineers and engineering in a new way. The beneficiaries of this campaign will be not only the engineering community, but also, ultimately, the country as a whole, which urgently needs large numbers of well educated engineers to support U.S. competitiveness and a sound economy (Box 1).

Challenges to Coordinated Outreach Campaigns

Implementing a coordinated outreach campaign raises many challenges, primarily because of the need for coordination among participating entities that may have complicated relationships. Is there already a management or organizational structure, or does one have to be established to administer the campaign? How loosely/formally organized is the industry or community? How diverse are the entities in terms of role, size, and stature? Will the individual entities benefit equally from the coordinated effort?

Participants and Decision Makers

The first of many challenges is determining who will be involved in the campaign and who will make decisions. For campaigns by existing industry associations, professional societies, or other alliances, these questions probably will not arise. For other campaigns, the players must be identified and encouraged to participate.

For the engineering community, the players, or participants, have been defined broadly in an NAE project called Changing the Conversation: From Research to Action (http://www.nae.edu/Activities/Projects20676/26426/20762. aspx):

“Engineering community” refers to the broad set of organizations that either (1) develop or support the development of engineering talent, (2) employ engineers in substantial numbers, or (3) have as a major part of their mission communicating with the public about engineering and related technical subjects. These organizations include: schools of engineering; engineering professional societies; technology-intensive industries; industry associations; federal agencies and R&D laboratories; design and contracting firms; certain print, broadcast, and Internet-based media; and museums and science and technology centers.

This all inclusive definition identifies stakeholders in the campaign. However, the question of control (i.e., planning, implementation, and decision making) must still be answered. With such a variety of subgroups (industry, schools of engineering, federal funders of R&D, etc.), which probably have different fundamental goals and target audiences, the decision concerning control presents a considerable challenge.

Competition

Competing interests are unavoidable in dealing with multiple entities, and working cooperatively goes against normal business practice in most situations. In engineering, there may be competition for consulting projects among companies, but more important, there may be competition for engineers to fill jobs. In addition, engineering schools must compete for students, and engineering societies try not only to build their memberships but also to attract students to their disciplines.

Competing interests might also affect the messages or goals of a coordinated campaign. The interests of a museum, for example, may be very different from those of an engineering school or a Fortune 500 company or a federal agency. The more disparate the stakeholders, the more difficult it is to identify and account for all competing interests.

Funding

There are several ways of funding coordinated outreach campaigns, from mandated “check offs” or levies to voluntary dues to angel funding. Competing interests among the participants can make funding more challenging because the perceived benefits for different interests are often difficult to quantify. In addition, the organizational infrastructure of the campaign may be loose or unclear.

The newness of a situation (e.g., a “first-ever campaign” to promote something) might also make it more difficult to secure financial support. In these situations, external funding (e.g., from the National Science Foundation) or internal funding from a single source (e.g., a so-called “angel”) may be the most viable options, rather than mandatory, or even voluntary, contributions from each member.

For the engineering community, because of the absence of a single organization with the authority to levy a fee, funding will likely be on a voluntary basis. This presents a serious challenge but does not make the campaign impossible.

Consistency and Coordination

Perhaps the most important challenge in implementing a coordinated outreach campaign is maintaining consistency and the coordination this requires. From the perspective of the target audiences, the campaign must be unified, and to have the greatest impact, the message must be delivered in a consistent way. The more entities involved and the less formalized the organization, the more difficult it is to coordinate activities and ensure that the message is uniformly delivered and activities are executed as planned.

Coordination must be achieved through the support of the participating groups. A concerted effort must be made to convince all stakeholders to use campaign materials and incorporate the message into their activities. In other words, a communication or educational campaign must be targeted to stakeholders first to persuade them of the value of the campaign.

Stakeholders must become the gatekeepers of the campaign. They must be convinced that (1) the overall mission and goals are valid and worthwhile; (2) the methods of achieving those goals are effective; and (3) the campaign will not adversely affect their marketing efforts. They must feel that messages and materials are in keeping with their own organization’s image and that they blend well with their marketing or communication efforts. The importance of meeting this challenge cannot be overstated.

The recently launched Changing the Conversation website (www.engineeringmessages.org) is intended, at least in part, to address consistency and support challenges. The site not only provides messages for the campaign and some recommendations on how the messages should be used, but it also encourages the players to share experiences and learn the most effective ways to incorporate the messages into their own outreach or marketing efforts. The latter will be a critical element to the success of the campaign.

Measuring Effectiveness

All outreach campaigns should be evaluated to determine their effectiveness. The metrics depend on the objectives or purpose of the campaign. Typically, the most stringent measure is the actual outcome of the campaign. For example, generic product promotion campaigns are implemented to increase sales, so sales would be the outcome measure. Legislative campaigns are attempts to impact the legislative process and can be judged by their success on that score.

For campaigns that seek to promote an opportunity rather than fix a problem, the outcome may be elusive, because there is no point of comparison—essentially no “control group” in the experiment—because we do not know what the result would have been if there had been no campaign.

For image campaigns, the outcome may be even more difficult to determine, or it may be difficult to attribute changes directly to the campaign. For example, the results of a campaign to encourage young people to become engineers may not be apparent for a decade. The goals of “sustain[ing] the U.S. capacity for technological innovation” and “improving technological literacy” (NAE, 2008) will be a challenge to measure on their own, but given the number of variables, correlating results with communication efforts and determining causation will be nearly impossible.

Therefore, other measures may be used to determine the effectiveness of a campaign. For example, process measures focus on the effort expended in the campaign (e.g., how many times was a message used, how many articles were written using the message, how many visits to the website, etc.).

Impact measures can indicate whether a campaign actually had an effect or impact on the target audience. Typically these include measures of awareness, knowledge, and attitudes.

One goal of the Changing the Conversation campaign is to encourage young people to go into engineering. Before a young person can make that decision, s/he must be aware of engineering as a field, be knowledgeable enough to make a sound decision, and have a favorable attitude toward the career. These may not be entirely predictive of a youngster actually entering the field, but they are necessary to making the decision. For the goal of improving technological literacy, awareness of the role of engineering in innovation, or even the image of engineers in society, may indicate that the campaign has had an impact.

Essential Conditions for Success

The engineering community’s efforts to change its public image are in some ways more challenging and ambitious than those of other coordinated outreach campaigns. The disparate nature of the stakeholders, the lack of a single coordinating mechanism, and difficult funding issues all contribute to the challenge, but there are three areas the engineering community should focus on to ensure success: the message strategy, the frequency and consistency of message delivery, and the mechanism for coordination and control.

The Message Strategy

The messages used in the campaign must be based on a sound strategic foundation that will resonate with the target audience. This is true of any campaign, but it is especially important for a coordinated campaign in which the target audience cannot rely on an organization or existing brand image to define the campaign. The message strategy unifies the campaign.

For the engineering community, there will be several specific messages, but they must be closely related and based on an overarching positioning statement (Box 2) for the engineering brand. Specific messages, taglines, and even visual presentations should tie into this strategy. The engineering community is in a strong position to succeed because its message strategy is based on sound research about the target audience conducted by the Bemporad Baranowski Marketing Group (BBMG) and presented in Changing the Conversation (NAE, 2008).

BOX 2
New Positioning Statement
for Engineering

No profession unleashes the spirit of innovation like engineering. From research to real-world applications, engineers constantly discover how to improve our lives by creating bold new solutions that connect science to life in unexpected, forward-thinking ways. Few professions turn so many ideas into so many realities. Few have such a direct and positive effect on people’s everyday lives. We are counting on engineers and their imaginations to help us meet the needs of the 21st century.

 Changing the Conversation (NAE 2008)


Frequency and Consistency

Frequency is essential to ensuring that messages are effective in persuading individuals to act. Especially in an environment in which the target audience is being bombarded by information, a consistent message is essential to breaking through the clutter and reinforcing awareness and attitudes.

The large, varied engineering community encompasses many players who are interested and dedicated to this cause, and the sheer size of the community and its resources has the potential to bring its messages to a wide audience. If most of the stakeholders adopt the same messages and use them consistently in even a portion of their marketing or outreach efforts, the campaign could achieve the necessary frequency to ensure success.

Mechanism for Coordination and Control: Educating Stakeholders

To ensure frequency and consistency, there must be a mechanism for coordinating activities. Stakeholders need an incentive to use the messages and support the campaign. They also need to be given tools, knowledge, and resources for using the messages and materials in the right way. Stakeholders must be convinced that the campaign will benefit them, which may require an educational campaign directed to them to explain potential benefits of the campaign as specifically as possible. Even though a large portion of the engineering community may agree that a campaign is necessary, many may still have to be convinced that they themselves will benefit.

An important part of the education process is to show results. Stakeholders may be more likely to participate if there are some short-term successes. Once they see tangible results, the risk of participating will be reduced.

The engineering community is already in the early stages of the educational process. The Changing the Conversation website can be a focal point of the campaign, ensuring control over messages by educating the many players in the community on the best way to use them, as well as on the need for the outreach campaign. By harnessing technology and embracing the changing media landscape, the website can reduce the amount of funding necessary for the campaign, provide an effective method of reaching younger audiences, and improve monitoring of results.

A single, central coordinating body would simplify the communication of messages to the target audience. Possible leaders of a coordinated outreach campaign for engineering include NAE, the National Society for Engineering Education, or an existing or new coalition, such as Change the Equation, which was recently established by President Obama.

Even though this kind of outreach activity is not a primary mission for any of these organizations, they may be in a position to coordinate parts of the effort if not the entire campaign. Opinion leaders and influential people in the engineering community can also play a leadership role, particularly in influencing stakeholders to participate in the campaign.

A Hopeful Conclusion

Although the engineering community faces many challenges, none of them is insurmountable. Indeed, achievements to date have set the engineering community’s campaign in the right direction. First, the need for a coordinated campaign has been identified and well defined. Second, the messages that have been developed are strong and based on solid research. Third, the importance of consistency and frequency is clearly understood.  Finally, the community is actively engaged in determining the best methods to ensure the success of the campaign.

References

Manning, J. 2006. Got Milk? marketing by association. Associations Now (July). Available online at http://www.asaecenter.org/Resources/ANowDetail.cfm? ItemNumbe r=18644.

NAE (National Academy of Engineering). 2002. Raising Public Awareness of Engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

NAE. 2008. Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

About the Author:Maria Ivancin is a professor in the School of Communication at American University and a consultant in communication and marketing research.