Overcoming the Knowledge Curse

In Margin Call, Jeremy Irons plays the CEO of an investment firm that’s about to go under because they have a problem so complex, most of the staff doesn’t understand it. At 2 a.m. Irons says, “Maybe you could tell me what is going on. And please, speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that brought me here; I assure you that.”

People with great expertise often find themselves unable to explain what they are doing to anyone else. This is because the brain’s shortcuts for storing and organizing complex information create barriers to communicating clearly to anyone else.

We see this happen in our work all the time. For example, SGA did public outreach for a regional infrastructure project. When residents told our clients they were afraid the project could trigger landslides, our clients waved them off. To our clients — a team of engineers who’d spent years on this project studying the geology and consulting with even more specialized experts — landslides were clearly not an issue.

However, this answer only angered residents. The engineers were so in the weeds on the technical issues, they completely missed the real question, the emotional side of the community’s worries. They were saying: “Don’t worry about landslides. We are the experts. If landslides were a problem, we would tell you.” But what the community heard was a lack of concern and condescension.

When we were brought in we worked with them on that real underlying question – the community’s worries. Instead of framing the question around the technical issue, “what is the probability of a landslide.” We shifted their answer to an agreement about the concern… “We too are concerned about landslides and that is why we brought in experts and have extensively studied this issue and here is what we found…”

This helped them address the broader issue and more importantly the emotions of the question and not just the technical information. In the next community meeting, the reaction had flipped almost 180 degrees from feeling disrespected and angry to one of gratitude and appreciation.

Engineers, scientists, lawyers, accountants and other experts fill the ranks of government and are who we usually work for. Many clients are like those engineers: So immersed in their expertise, it’s understandably hard to put themselves in the shoes of people who haven’t had their training or experience.

Harvard Psychology Professor, Steven Pinker, who studies language and the mind says it is common for experts to have trouble communicating what they know. It’s called “the curse of knowledge.” It happens because the same mental processes that help experts organize data in their brains get in the way of their ability to present what they know to others.

One of these tactics is called “chunking,” a process “in which we package groups of concepts into ever further abstraction in order to save space in our brain,” according to a The Farnam Street Blog’s post on Pinker’s findings.

Another reason why this emerges is through jargon. Language short-cuts within a given expertise. Jargon is often looked down upon, but it is actually very valuable. Where it becomes problematic is when those in the know (Curse of Knowledge) are speaking to people outside of the field and the language becomes meaningless.

When the government starts educating people in neighborhoods about a new project, the knowledge gap can be immense. The city officials know everything about the project, and are comfortable speaking about it amongst themselves in their private language. But good communication is all about knowing your audience and breaking the “curse” (of knowledge), so your audience understands you.

With help from Professor Pinker, here are six of SGA’s best practices to overcome “the knowledge curse.”

  1.  What is your audience’s concern? Look at the issue from their point of view. Relate the issue to their narrative of how they see things
  2. If you must use technical terms, define them.
  3. Use concrete examples.  Remove abstractions from the conversation by providing an example that someone can visualize. The better they can see what you are talking about the easier it is for them to understand.
  4. Spell out acronyms at least once. Never assume your reader knows what the acronyms stand for.
  5. Ask you answering the right question.When we are steeped in solving a problem and creating solutions we are usually answering the question HOW? How do we build something, how do we draft the policy, etc. But when an outside audience is engage they usually ask questions about WHY? Or WHAT? Why is this important to me or What do I need to do next. When we talk to an audience outside our field answering the right question is easy to miss.
  6. Get a second set of eyes to read over your presentation and see if they understand it. According to Pinker, “The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by the reader.”

For more insights on communications, here are some other recent recommendations to articles and books that have recently inspired us at SGA:

A still very relevant summary of current research into the social evolutionary reasons behind human irrationality, by one of our favorite New York Times writers, Elizabeth Kolbert.

“Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.The `challenge that remains is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.”

  • On the topic of public sector communications challenges, check out the Planet Money Podcast Episode on why the State of California couldn’t get eligible state residents to sign up for what was, in effect, free money.

Using Emotional Connections With Audiences to Create a Successful Digital Marketing Campaign

At the digital  California Stormwater Quality Association (CASQA) Virtual Conference, this fall, SGA debuted a poster for the San Bernardino County Stormwater Program’s annual Valentine Gram Canister campaign. 2020 was the second consecutive year of the Program’s campaign, where dog owner subscribers to the Program could send a free digital valentine gram to a friend that contained a link to a free dog waste bag canister. This year, the Program offered a special heart-shaped canister clip along with the canister during the month of February.

In the campaign’s first year, the Program sent out 268 free canisters. This year, the campaign saw a 51% jump to 405 canisters requested and distributed. The goal of this campaign was to get new dog owners opted into the Program in a more organic way. We wanted to get our subscribers excited about the campaign and get them to share about it with their friends, who would take their recommendations to opt into our campaign far more seriously than any of our ads. As a matter of fact, the Program does zero advertising for the campaign — just the enewsletter to its mailing list — and otherwise, it’s spread by word of mouth. As for stormwater messaging, the canisters come with a note from Spot, the Program’s mascot, that reminds its new canister owners to clip the canister to their leash and thanks them for keeping our waterways free from pet waste.

With a fun incentive and attractive campaign branding, a friendly message from dog mascot Spot, and an easy-to-follow workflow that lets subscribers send a message to their friend, the SBC Stormwater Program used a campaign to get residents excited while promoting the social norm and usage of picking up after your pet.

A Lesson from COVID-19 for Earth Day

The spread of COVID-19 has resulted in arguably one of the largest mass behavior changes in human history. Its ripple effects have impacted every aspect of our daily lives.

From reminding people that only toilet paper is flushable (#WipesClogPipes), to helping people get child support after losing a job, to educating them on how to store household hazardous waste while HHW centers are closed, we have been working with our clients to help their communities adapt to this once-in-a-generation event.

Cognitive psychology research shows that people are far more willing to change under uncertainty when they are confronted by concrete and relatable concepts, rather than abstract ones. I certainly know that for myself and my family, the consequences of COVID-19 feel tangible, urgent, and scary.
In contrast, climate change is, for most people, still very much an abstract concept. So much of the work we do at SGA is using market research to figure out how to make this concept and long-term environmental issues personal, urgent, and actionable to every community.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are inspired by the speed of global behavior change in recent weeks. This pandemic stands as a profound example that global environmental behavior change is possible and that the goals of Earth Day are achievable.

For all our government and non-profit friends, if you need a sounding board or just want to talk through how you will adjust, please feel free to reach out (SGA is providing assistance as a way of giving back during this time of crisis).

Physically Apart but Together as a Community

The evolving COVID-19 pandemic presents unique difficulties for people everywhere- we are all living in unchartered territory and with unprecedented worry. While we all stand tall in the face of this challenge, this season has also been a visceral reminder of how interconnected we are.
This concept is the very keystone of SGA’s work.
Everyday and in every single moment, we are now reminded that a sneeze can have a ripple effect through one’s entire community. Likewise, one’s individual daily actions, from recycling to not pouring engine oil down a storm drain, all help the greater good. Positive behavior change is built on the power of solidarity. As we all adjust to these profound social and economic changes, our hope is that this renewed appreciation for our fragile web of interconnectedness is protected.
Community engagement and connection, even with the hurdle of physical distancing, is as important as ever.
If you need a sounding board, or just the time to just talk through how to adjust, we would like to offer our help (at our expense as a way to give back during this time). SGA is here to stand with you as we maneuver through this season of uncertainty together.

Spinning 3 Websites in 6 Months

Good web design is like a spider web: what appears to be simple, functional, and delicate should also be intricate, elegant, and strong. And like an excited spider who’s just caught an unlucky fly, web design is one of those things that gets our team really fired up.

It requires the perfect mix of left and right brain — from planning the overall architecture of a site, to considerations about user experience and design, to coding and the final, fine-toothed top to bottom review. Over the last 6 months, 3 sites that we designed from the ground-up have gone live. These websites have ranged in complexity, breadth, and purpose. Keep reading to find out why we spun them!

1) RethinkWaste

RethinkWaste represents and manages the waste from 12 member cities in San Mateo County. SGA was brought on to redesign its website to improve usability and meet the communication needs of its service area community. After designing this new website from the ground up, here’s what Rethink had to say about us:

[box] “SGA, specifically the amazing Suzi, helped us not only meet our needs with an aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate website on the front and back end, but they also created a custom section to house our important meeting agendas and staff reports. This has helped us improve our transparency as a public agency. Our new and improved website communicates, educates and engages with our community better than ever before.” — Julia Au, Outreach & Communications Manager, Rethink Waste[/box]

2) Lincoln Stormwater

The City of Lincoln’s Stormwater program used to be hosted on a small subsection of the City’s website. SGA was brought in to create a dynamic hub for stormwater-related information, resources, and content relevant to the city residents. In addition to the new website, which we designed to deliver simple, easy-to-understand messaging about stormwater management, we designed a new logo to cement the program’s credibility and integrity.

3) Bayfront Canal & Atherton Channel Flood Management and Restoration Project

The last site SGA recently worked on is a microsite for a flood management project occurring within several diverse communities that are subjected to annual flooding. The purpose of the site was to establish an official, designated area where the County of San Mateo could post project updates, and where residents could visit for up-to-date and reliable information. The site needed to be designed in a user-friendly way that remained intuitive across diverse audiences, clearly communicated the problem and proposed solution, and reduced the potential for uncertainty. You can view our work here.

Like our sites? Want to know more about their structure, our process, or availability to design your dream site? We’re listening! Email us at info@sga-inc.net.

How to Avoid Being Mistaken for SPAM

Now that I’ve got your mouth watering, I’m here to tell you something less savory: only about 85% of the emails you send in your newsletter campaign actually reach the inboxes you’ve sent them to. That means that a whopping 15% of all the emails you send get flagged as spam and filed away in the dreaded “spam folder” (even when you’re not attempting to blackmail strangers in exchange for bitcoin). So how do you get past tough spam filters and land safely in the inboxes of your audience? Keep reading and we’ll tell you!

There are over 150 known reasons that emails can be flagged as spam and these are changing all the time—even words like “Dear” can trigger spam filters. Beyond your choice of words, there are lots of small inclusions that will result in your emails being flagged as spam. Whether it’s sending emails too frequently (or too infrequently), designing emails that aren’t mobile responsive, or emails with too many images—ever-changing spam laws can feel impossible to keep up with.

So, what can you do? The first thing you might want to consider is email authentication. Authentication basically tells your Internet Service Provider (ISP) that emails are coming from your brand. If you’re interested, SPF & DKIM are the Gold Standard for email authentication; if you’re lucky enough to have a subscriber list that’s over 50,000 you’ll want to authenticate with DMARC. But make no mistake: authentication is only the bare minimum needed to make sure your emails are not marked as spam.

Once your email is authenticated, you’ll want to constantly work to improve your reputation data. Reputation data lies at the micro-level of each subscriber and is based on your relationship with that subscriber. Depending on both the actions of the email recipient and your actions as a sender, your reputation data will either build in a positive or negative direction. The following scenarios outline how particular actions relate to your reputation data:

Very Positive Signal

Positive Signal

Negative Signal

  • The recipient responds to your email.
  • The recipient moves your email to a designated folder.
  • The recipient opens your emails consistently.
  • The recipient clicks around your emails.
  • The recipient forwards your email to someone else.
  • The recipient deletes your email without opening it.
  • The recipient marks your email as spam without opening it.

If you notice engagement drop, or that a lot of your subscribers aren’t opening your emails, you could develop a poor sender reputation which could start to trigger spam filters. A “re-engagement campaign” is an effective way to prevent this from happening. “Re-engagement” essentially entails sending an email that asks the inactive people on your list if they’re still interested in your content.  It can look something like this one we designed for a client:

Recipients that don’t respond to the email are removed from your list. Cleaning your list will momentarily decrease your number of subscribers, but your reputation data is likely to improve. When it comes to sending emails and measuring engagement, remember this: quality emails sent to a slightly smaller but more interested audience will garner more impressive results than frequent emails sent to a disengaged list.

The last thing you can do to decrease the chance of inadvertently designing spammy emails is to consider user experience. Design your emails with the knowledge that engaging subject lines, readable layouts (design mobile first), personalized emails, and organic email lists (avoid buying lists) will improve your access to inboxes as much as authentication will.

As spam filters become further refined we’ll all have to worry about having our emails misdirected away from inboxes less and less, but for now, we’re lucky enough to have these solutions!

Was this article helpful? Let us know what you think by emailing us at info@sga-inc.net.

How Do We Motivate Behavior Change?

In the late 1960s, Stanford University professor Walter Michel began his now classic “Marshmallow Experiments.” He offered four and five-year-olds a choice: they could either have one marshmallow now (he put it in front of them) or, if they waited 15 minutes, they could have a second.

Not surprisingly, most of the kids couldn’t wait and chose to gobble down the first marshmallow. But a few showed restraint. Michel observed that the children who waited to double their marshmallowy profits had found ways to distract themselves and focus on something else.

Michel followed these kids throughout school, college and into early adult-life, and found that (on average) the kids that could delay gratification did much better in school, at work, and even in their marriages than those who gobbled down that first marshmallow.

So what does this mean? It’s simple. Delayed gratification is difficult while instant gratification is obtainable and easy, making it hard to see the benefits of long-term payoffs. Saving money for retirement, exercising for optimum health, and making changes for the environment are all extremely difficult because we don’t get an instant pay off. We have to consciously work for something we cannot initially see.

Behavior change campaigns need to be conscious of this reality in order to be successful. Although most people can understand the long-term benefits of a change, changes like this are not as compelling as something with instant gratification. Successful behavior change campaigns allow audiences to celebrate small, incremental wins that bring them closer to the bigger picture and the overall goal.

Let’s take clean water, for example. Many people state that they are motivated to keep their creeks, rivers, bays, and oceans clean. That’s a huge goal and it can take a long time to see noticeable changes. But choosing to pick up your dog waste all the time in order to keep stormwater clean (and ultimately larger water bodies of water), is an incremental step towards accomplishing that larger goal. Personal barriers (like “I don’t have a bag,” and “other people leave their dog waste”) and motivators (“I want to be a good neighbor” and “this protects my kid”) are way more powerful when it comes to the smaller actions that contribute to the larger goal.

So how do you keep an audience engaged with a campaign goal as big as keeping the ocean clean? You use your resources and social media platforms to constantly motivate your audience by allowing them “little wins” that move everyone toward the larger goal.

Start conversations over social media that allow your audience to engage. If you’re trying to clean the ocean, encourage your followers to make Facebook pledges to pick up after their pets, and make your quippy sound-bites educational! Show your audience how their small actions will collectively make a big difference, all while helping keep lawns lush and shoes clean.

Always think big—but remember to start small and add on from there. Count every step, celebrate every win, and make it a big deal! Despite how far a single action/change may feel from a long-term goal, celebrating the little wins keeps your audience engaged and ready for the big win up ahead.

Happy or Happenstance?

In recent years, happiness has become an increasingly popular topic in the field of psychology.  But as many researchers have found, it’s a tricky topic to study. Happiness is easily misread, difficult to measure, and often created by counter-intuitive actions.

One researcher at the University of California Riverside, Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, has made some significant strides towards understanding what makes us happy. And based on her research of thousands of individuals she’s created an interesting guide to understanding what it is, and what it isn’t.
Her research suggests that:

    • half of our happiness is determined by our genes,
    • 10% is based on the life circumstances we find ourselves in,
    • and 40% is based on our attitude and the choices we make.

So, while 60% of our happiness is out of our control, 40% is very much in our control. That 40% might seem like cause for celebration, but Lyubomirsky also found that many of the assumptions we hold about the things we believe will make us happy, may actually lead us towards greater melancholy. ~GASP~ Lyubomirsky also found that some of the social norms we are encouraged to embrace will likely be detrimental to our happiness in the long-run.

Lyubomirsky debunked 3 common myths:

Myth #1: Homeowners are happier than renters.
Contrary to what we hold to be true as part of the “American dream,” researchers have found that homeowners are actually less happy than renters. They derive more emotional stress from their homes than do renters, and they spend more time on housework and less time interacting with friends and neighbors.

Myth #2: Getting a good education is the key.
Turns out the more educated people are, the less satisfied they are with their lives. The enhanced satisfaction that we might derive from our advanced degrees appears to be outweighed by our increased aspirations and their attendant risk of disappointment and regret.

Myth #3: The young have more fun!
The media tends to portray 20-30 year-olds as the pinnacle of life exuberance, fun and happiness. Yet, as Lyubomirsky finds, “A 22-year study of about 2,000 healthy veterans of World War II and the Korean War revealed that life satisfaction increased over the course of these men’s lives, peaked at age 65, and didn’t start significantly declining until age 75.”

In general, what Lyubomirsky found is that life is less about ownership or accomplishments than it is about the richness of our experiences, the friendships we make along the way, and the mindset we approach our day-to-day life with—no matter your age. So, the next time you have a choice between buying the latest gadget or spending money on an outing with friends, go with the people. And when you’re thinking about your next job, focus on vacation time, flexibility, and office culture, not just the salary, title, and position.

We all want to be happy, but it’s often difficult to parse cause from effect. What initially seems like an obvious improvement in our lives, may turn out to be a short-term jolt that quickly fades away.

Thinking back on your life what has made you happiest? What are your keys to success? Do these findings resonate with you? Email info@sgamarketing.com with your thoughts and feedback.

Sports and Essential Communication Lessons: What Football Taught Me About Marketing

Walking through my neighborhood on a Sunday morning is no longer a time for quiet self-reflection. House after house, cheers of excitement and shouts of anger escape through insulated walls and double-paned glass. This can only mean one thing: it’s football season. The bright flat screens that peak through neighbor’s windows and the individuals glued to it all sport matching jerseys as they high-five or fist pump in unison. Sports, like football, are an incredible study of human behavior, especially with all that you can learn and apply to concepts such as communications and marketing. Here are a few you may find intriguing:

1.) Play to Group Identity: Football season combines the power of patriotism with the addiction of being a sports fan. In his book “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt talks about humans having a “Hive Switch,” in essence where people naturally move from self-identity to group identity.  It is not only a very seductive and powerful shift, but an important thing to remember when communicating with people. Reaching out to people through their group identity is an extremely powerful way to reach your audience.

2.) The Power of Emotions: I have to admit I am not a huge football fan but when I am at my parents house sitting next to my very serious Dallas Cowboy fan of a father you bet I am screaming at the TV screen as much as anyone else in the room. The community you form wherever you may be to watch a game—whether it’s at a family member’s home, a restaurant, a bar, or the electronics section at Target—is riveting. You catch yourself hugging strangers, yelling at your cousin, and standing on furniture that you definitely shouldn’t be standing on. It plays on your emotions: excitement, anger, happiness, fear, suspense. It brings us together despite who we are and what we look like. If you speak through emotions you can motivate and communicate in ways you did not believe possible.

3.) The Addiction of Suspense: One of the reasons I believe football is so popular in the US is because most games are equally matched and aren’t determined until the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Football games often have scores that are neck and neck separated by a touchdown or just a single field goal, and it makes you watch to that very last minute of the game (and sometimes overtime). So the audience has to deliberate: can their team make a miracle field goal or Hail Mary pass, or is it over? We are naturally drawn to suspense, we want to know what will happen, how things will change. While we always want to be clear in our communications, sometimes holding off on the punchline and building the drama of the outcome is a great way to engage your audience.

So here’s to football. Here’s to engaging communications. And here’s to finding an excuse to join a group of strangers on an autumn day to root for your favorite team.

What Data has Taught Us About Improving Outreach

The growth of social media and online outreach over the past 3 years has been astronomical. With a projected 2.77 billion social media users worldwide by 2019, social media campaigns are booming. We live in a generation where we check our emails constantly, share our meals on Instagram, update our family via Facebook, connect with friends through Twitter, and YouTube just about anything we want to expand our knowledge on. With this growth came a lot of good changes—but also many challenging ones. Facebook changed their algorithm, Instagram updated their feed order, and Twitter increased their character cap. What does this have to do with outreach?


So how do we stay on top of the changes and ensure our content is accessible? We gather and analyze the data. When utilizing the internet as a platform for your outreach it is important to know and understand the what, the why, and the when. Luckily you don’t have to figure that out all on your own. That’s right, you can improve your outreach by using the simple ideas listed below. These ideas will help you make sure you understand what you need for a successful digital outreach campaign: who to reach out to, the type of content to post, where and when it needs to be posted, etc. SGA has been testing online experiments for a while now and we’ve learned a lot about how to build better and more reliable outreach programs. Grab a pen and paper (or the notes tab on your laptop) and tuck into our hot tips!

1. Reach beyond likes and unique visitors. The biggest problem with using social media likes and website visits as a proxy for success is that you don’t know why people took the action. They could have been searching for your content and found it engaging. Or they might have randomly clicked on your website during a Google search and quickly left, never to return again. You just don’t know. While building a strong foundation of fans is important, it’s just the beginning. To build a community, you need to test how engaged your fans are through controlled messaging experiments. One key way of doing this is to make sure Google Analytics is set up on your website and to take the time to review the reports. Specifically acquisition, user behavior, and individual page views.

2. Embrace A/B testing. If you really want to understand the value of your likes, you need to see if they are repeatable. The key is to run two sets of posts—an A version and a B version (you can also run multi-variant tests if you want to move more aggressively.) Then see how each performs with your community over time. You can set these up on social media, websites and e-newsletters. For e-newsletters, send the two variations to a random subset of your subscriber list a few days before you intend to send out the newsletter. Then send the one that does best to the rest of your list. Different areas of your messaging that may benefit from A/B testing might include: subject lines, headlines, images, timing of posts, and calls to action.

3. Turn data into insights. Once you have some data to work with, you can look at the demographics of the people who engaged with your content, as well as the content that received the best response. Facebook and Twitter insights and Google Analytics can tell you loads about your followers. Understanding the type of content that resonates with them will help you understand how to inspire them with behavior change messaging. This data allows you to paint a more robust picture of your audience, which you can incorporate into outreach both offline and online.

4. Create a call to action. Find the route to engagement by asking your fans to do something. When determining your call to action, be sure it’s something you can measure. How else would you know if it worked? Don’t be afraid to start small and increase your goal as you get a better grasp on what’s working. Ask fans to opt in to your emails, or to post their own content sharing actions they have taken. One of our projects for the Orange County Stormwater Program asked people to post photos showing how they were saving water in their yards. By having residents publicize their actions we not only created an opportunity to verify behavior change, but we started building a social norm for the action and engagement in general.

As changes to our media outlets ramp up in 2018,  it’s important to know where to start and how to collect the right data for outreach. With simple experiments, you can better understand your audience, their motivations and whether they’re buying your program’s message or merely window shopping.