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Who Are the New Trusted Messengers for Social-Good Campaigns?

We all look to reach Americans with reliable information they need about important social issues. But in these highly political and polarized times, who the message comes from is just as important—if not more—than the content of the message itself. So who do Americans trust on social issues today, and how can we maximize the impact these trusted messengers have on social-good campaigns?

The newly launched Ad Council Research Institute, which works with brand, corporate and nonprofit partners to conduct and publish public studies on critical social issues, has just released The Trusted Messenger Study. It was designed to identify the messengers Americans say they trust on six key social issues—COVID-19, mental health, voting/civic engagement, racial equity and justice, climate change and addiction. The findings have clear takeaways for how brands and agencies should engage with influencers on creative campaigns with a social-good focus.

To move Americans from awareness to action, companies and causes should consider celebrities and influencers to be one piece of the Trusted Messenger Ecosystem (see image above). This ecosystem includes what can be called amplifiers, validators and persuaders—amplifiers bringing awareness to an issue, paired with a credible expert validator who provides resources. These resources, in turn can, be used one-on-one by persuaders.

Here are five recommendations for executing this strategy.

1. Choose messengers who possess the qualities Americans find trustworthy.
For corporate leaders, brands and causes working to inform and engage the public on social issues, it's critical to identify messengers that have the attributes the general population view as trustworthy.

2. Take audience demographics (and preferences) into account when identifying trusted messengers.
For example, the study found that baby boomers are more trusting of family members, as well as doctors and scientists, than younger generations. That younger crowd, meanwhile—especially millennials, those born from the early 1980s through the early 2000s—are somewhat more trusting of such messengers as the media, local and state community leaders, social media influencers and celebrities.

3. Provide tools for trusted messengers to become educated on the proposed issue.
It's not uncommon for brands and causes to select impartial messengers to deliver key information, only to realize too late that these messengers lack the knowledge to truly inform audiences and nudge behaviors in the desired direction. Companies and causes must provide tools for these individuals to become informed on the issues. Equipping those who are already interested in a cause or issue with the tools and resources to become ambassadors will, in turn, create trusted messengers who are prepared to nudge those in their lives toward the desired goal.

4. Equip trusted messengers with the knowledge to prevail in any environment.
Race, age, region, political affiliation and so many other demographic characteristics can influence a person's level of trust—or distrust—in the messengers around them. This is particularly true given the polarization throughout the country today. Trusted messengers will not be delivering messages in a vacuum, so it's up to companies and causes to prepare them to understand, navigate and succeed in any climate.

5. Don't confuse virality with trustworthiness.
Again, a celebrity or influencer with a following can be instrumental in raising awareness on an issue, but on their own they may not be seen as trustworthy enough on a social issue to change minds and drive action. They are instead key pieces of the Trusted Messenger Ecosystem who can shine their light on more trusted experts.

In other words, doing this work is not just an air game but also a ground game, and one we’re all in together. The stronger the coalitions we build—not just nationally, but on the ground at the community level—the better our chance to open hearts, change minds and move this country forward.

This post was originally published by Ad Age.