Play to your audience: emotional arcs and making people feel like assholes

In December last year this site was circulating through my Facebook circle.  I didn't think too much about it at the time, for reasons I'll get to below, but it's stuck with me since. I think this is mainly because it's indicative of a problem I've been struggling with in my own work, and one I see crop up in campaigns frequently; it doesn't know who it's for.

Now before I get started I just want to say that maybe this criticism isn't fair. I don't know what the creator intended so I could be judging it as something it's not trying to be. Nevertheless, I think still serves as a good example of not having a clear audience and what that can mean for your user experience.

The site starts with a simple instruction; click here to save the world. As you click forward - though by my best count 173 clicks - it gets into a fairly straightforward admonishment of slacktivism and people who won't put their money where their mouth when supporting a cause. It calls out people who walk past chuggers, people who buy smoothies instead of donating to charities, and so on. It ends by telling you to go do something.

That description really doesn't do it justice. Take a minute to click through and get a proper sense of it.

Knowing your audience is key for everything you do. The audience you are aiming for will inform your goals (or vice versa) and your process design. If you're confused at the beginning you're confused all the way through.

Who is this for? It addresses the general masses but seems to be written for people who know the inside baseball of working in nonprofits. This creates problems and manifests itself in the tone, which is passive aggressive, smug, and frankly more than a little sanctimonious. When it asks you how many smoothies you would give up to help those in need there's no answer that doesn't result in the site saying it isn't enough. That may be true, but it isn't helpful.

They say you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. I'm not a fan of that saying. There's a role of negative emotions in campaigning. Negative emotions are powerful and can be great motivators. Negative emotions can't be the end point though.

If we look at designing an effective process for motivating action then negative emotions can be part of that process. They're a step or a launching point but never the destination. Good campaigns tell a story. Not just the story of the campaign but the story of the audience as part of the campaign. You engage them and bring them into the fold making them invest in it. It's an emotional arc, a character arc, that you take them through. You can't just make people feel shitty and abandon them. You need to give them an out; an opportunity to feel good about themselves when they walk away.

The first example that pops into my head, and it isn't the best, is this Sarah McLachlan ad for the SPCA. It is depressing as shit; showing you images of abused and abandoned animals. The commercials don't just fade to black there though. That would be horrific. They tell you about how you can help and then they show you the impact of that help when you get to see animals that are now healthy and in happy homes. There's an emotional journey to it.

Click to Save the World fades to black after calling you an asshole.

That's not constructive. If you want me - as a member of the public who you accuse of being apathetic and unwilling to contribute in any significant way to charity - to take action then you need to guide me to that action. If you want me to do something then you need to at least hint at what that something is. Let me know how I can make an impact.

This is a question of motivation. Where the site aims to motivate it instead alienates. I don't think the site is wrong in that most people lack the motivation to take substantial action whether that be volunteering their time or their money. People have different priorities and shit to deal with in their lives. There's two ways to go about addressing this; you either a) raise their motivation over that barrier of inaction to the point where they'll take action, or b) you lower the barrier to match their current motivation. Realistically, you're probably going to want to do both.

Because the site doesn't know who it's talking to it fails to accomplish anything. Joe Schmoe off the street is left feeling down and confused and Jan Charity Worker gets to briefly feel smug before feeling depressed that the public doesn't care. A challenge is issued but the rules aren't set out. It's like taking someone who has never seen a basketball in their life, walking them to the court and then telling them to score some points. The people on the sidelines who know how to play can have a good chuckle at the person floundering to understand what they're supposed to do but in the end is anything really being accomplished?