Audience Skepticism: A Rhetorical Approach

The outcry for authenticity arises from an ingrained and cultivated skepticism propagated in an environment rife with advertising and marketing messages. People today are aware of the tactics utilized by persuaders from all fields. While consumers are still susceptible to this type of messaging, no matter how adamantly individuals may claim the contrary, people are overwhelmingly more skeptical today than in previous generations.

In the past, brands and companies spoke to consumers, now they speak with them—rather, the successful ones do. Collaborative and conversational interactions with consumers, especially in social media, are one way companies are showing the authentic face of their brand to customers, as well as bringing valuable and desirable content to social channels. As noted in our last blog, listening and communicating in an authentic manner goes a long way with consumers, and are fundamental to credibility with followers and consumers alike. These tactics not only build engagement, they effect reputation and can work to reduce skepticism.

Going Greek

“There are, then, these three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able to reason logically, to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and to understand the emotions …”
– Aristotle,
The Art of Rhetoric

Marketing, like many other fields and maybe more than some, is about rhetoric. Before you groan and tune out, let me just define that term for you. Rhetoric, as per Aristotle (the father of rhetorical thought), defines rhetoric as the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing—it is designed to have an impressive effect on its audience. Sadly, this term has become maligned and misunderstood in the modern age with its association with politics; now this art is regarded as lacking sincerity or meaningful content.

Despite that view, rhetoric is at the heart of all communicative acts, including advertising and marketing.

Rhetoric is as complicated as humanity itself. Aristotle classified it as an art. Like an artist, rhetoricians—writers, advertisers, speakers, marketers, indeed, everyone—possess numerous tools with which to craft their messages and communications, be they simple or complex. We also have a vast and diverse palatte. These devices are wielded to present a message meant to effect a change in thinking and/or behavior in a specific audience (i.e., convince them to choose one particular brand or company over another, use this service over that one, align with one side of a particular issue or outlook, etc.). They are also used to overcome audience resistance and skepticism.

Certain of Not Knowing

“Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.”
– Bertrand Russell

In the simplest form, skeptics resist the content of a message. This type of resistance involves greater scrutiny of the information within and behind the messaging. Strong counter arguments are the most straightforward way of dealing with skepticism in your audience, but it is not the only way.

Narrative stories present and encourage the processing of information in a holistic way which can substantially reduce skepticism, especially in instances when the message is incongruent with the values of the audience. Typically, when the message aligns with the audience’s preferences statistical evidence is more persuasive. Narratives more easily communicate some information than the counter argument strategy; stories can also be more relatable and create a stronger connection to the audience.

Framing, the positioning of your topic, can help guide the way an audience views it, sometimes reducing skepticism before it takes root. This technique can also guide your approach to objections of the heart and mind. For example, emotional objections are best cooled by logical replies.

One vital step in replying to and converting skeptics is paraphrasing. This tactic shows you are attentive and listening to members of your audience and restating what another is saying in your own words affords you the chance to acknowledge the audience member’s question or objection while positioning your response to guide the conversation. Paraphrasing can also make you more comfortable in addressing the topic. Part of its usefulness lies in validating the audience and acting as a pivot point to direct the conversation.

When combatting objections of the mind, analogies, even the clichéd and trite, can come in handy. Their effectiveness is in the fact that they are widely, almost universally, understood and can quickly bring common wisdom to bear on your side of the conversation. Of course, you don’t want to rely too heavily on clichés, but knowing when to use them and how often is part of having familiarity with the audience you are reaching out to.

Eyes Wide Open

“Everyone has a story to tell or a product to sell. Know your audience before you open your mouth.”
– April Sims

Audience is the paramount factor in advertising, marketing … and rhetoric. Without consideration of the audience, the goals of these activities can fall flat. Social marketers especially have to be attentive to the audiences, who their efforts aim to reach, and with whom they are interacting—these might not always be the same audience.

This is where listening, data, and attentiveness come into play. The data helps us understand the market segments and audiences we seek to engage at the widest view. Attentiveness—to the market, to trends, and to social media—is needed to narrow the focus. Listening allows marketers, specifically in the social channels, to zoom in even further on the precise audience of a brand, message, or company. Honing in on the audience of our advertising and marketing efforts is necessary to employ effective strategies to reach, engage, and influence our audiences.

Staying Focused

“To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from ‘What information do I need to convey?’ to ‘What questions do I want my audience to ask?’”
– Chip Heath,
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Knowing your audience is vital to the success of marketing endeavors, but even more so in the fast-paced, immediate world of social marketing. In digital spaces events move at the speed of the scroll, to catch the eyes of customers you have to know who they are and what they want, and you have to give it to them.

Boiling it all down to the common denominator, social marketers should ensure that they are providing messages that are easy to remember and transmit. They need to focus on the needs and desires of their brand’s/company’s particular target audience, and address them. Social marketers also have to be ready to jump at questions and objections, and address skepticism and other resistance with haste and an appropriate response.