Spitfire Strategies

Making Sense of Messy Truths with Tamara Thompson

Jae Aron

By Jae Aron
Senior Account Manager

At Spitfire, we pride ourselves in our ability to use effective communication to make positive change in the world. But in an era of “truthiness” and “fake news,” breaking through the clutter is easier said than done. To make our messaging stick, we need to understand not only what people do, but why they do it. We also must incorporate Mindful Messaging – which considers how people hear, process and respond to messages. In today’s media-saturated world, Spitfire constantly is expanding our knowledge, testing narratives and taking advantage of new technologies to spark real, lasting change.

As part of Spitfire’s commitment to learning, we invited Tamara Thompson, founder of the marketing research firm SenseTruth, to talk to us about how to leverage qualitative research to make sense of the rational – and irrational – ways people behave. From understanding the influence of the iconic American West and cowboy culture to investigating how to get away from yoga pants and back into spirituality, Tamara’s work underscores how we can use cultural and psychological frameworks to better understand our audiences – and ultimately, make sense of messy truths.

Below is a recap of her talk on October 26. You can also watch a recording here.

Research via frameworks: culture, archetypes, constituents of self and forces of change

Power of culture

When designing a research inquiry, you need to know the ins and outs of your audience. Many audiences, according to Tamara, are united by the six elements of culture: values and belief systems, day-to-day existence and lifestyles, means and modes of communicating, expectations and roles, treatment of and relationship to others and orientation to spirituality. By exploring these six elements through primary research (like surveys and interviews) and secondary research (like articles and books), communicators can develop stronger messaging that motivates audiences to act. Refrain from speaking for people. Instead, amplify their voices and use what you’ve learned to nudge them toward a desired behavior.  

Identifying archetypes

Even a unified culture has some variance within the group. That’s where Tamara’s psychology background comes through, providing researchers with new frameworks for understanding basic human motivations. Within each culture, people play different roles – and by identifying these character types within a community (what psychologists call “archetypes”), we can tailor our messaging even further. For example, would you describe your audience as explorers? Heroes? Caregivers? Rebels? Tamara mentioned the “Jungian” archetype – the most common character model in psychology – but there are many others. Identifying these archetypes can help us craft stronger messages to appeal to different sub-cultures within a larger audience group.  

Constituents of self

Archetypes and cultures still leave us with many unanswered questions about human behavior at the individual level. Delving into the different facets of an individual’s personality, what psychologists term “the constituents of self,” can help researchers craft stronger communications that appeal to both conscious and subconscious behaviors. For example, does saving the Chesapeake Bay appeal to a person’s value system or is it a way to wear an “environmentalist” badge to build status with their friends? Knowing these internal and external motivations can help communicators tailor their messaging to resonate with specific aspects of a person’s identity.

Forces of Change

Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of cultural change to throw a wrench in everything you’re trying to accomplish. People do not exist in a vacuum. It is therefore important to identify what Tamara calls “forces of change” – and analyze the opportunities and risks associated with them. For example, say your target audience is millennial men. Cultural forces, for example, have fundamentally altered the male identity – now, according to Tamara’s research, young men identify more as action-oriented problem-solvers, and less as the major breadwinners in their family, as older generations of men do. Identifying these social forces – and the pressures they place on your cause or issue – are critical to any research endeavor.

Methodology Matters

Now comes the fun part – doing the research. There are many ways to conduct research – and each methodology has its own benefits and drawbacks, whether you’re diving into a topic, a category or a target audience. Regardless of the method you choose, Tamara emphasized the importance of setting aside your biases and staying “mindful that what you want to say might be hard to hear.”

Tamara discussed three qualitative research methods that can provide a powerful foundation for both strategy and communications.

Focus groups

Focus groups often are called upon to brainstorm ideas and generate robust debate. While focus groups are geographically-constrained, they can be an insightful way to get a quick read on a narrow range of topics over the course of a few hours.

Online ethnography

An online platform that offers immersion into the lives, habits and values of your audience, allowing you to engage with participants over the course of a few days using photos, video, narratives and surveys. Because the research is online – from recruitment to activity completion – it transcends the geographical constraints of other qualitative research methods. Online panels also are useful because they allow you to engage a group of people on an ongoing basis across multiple projects.  

In-location ethnography

Tamara believes the best way to walk in someone’s shoes is through methods like in-location ethnography – the most intimate (and invasive) type of research methodology. Unlike its online counterpart, researchers go on location to gather information about people in their natural environment. For this methodology (as for many others), great recruiting is critical, along with a selection process that ensures your participants are open and expressive about their beliefs, values and behaviors.

For 15 years, Spitfire has worked to make sense of all the “messy truths” we observe and use that knowledge to spark positive change in the world. We are grateful to Tamara for helping us take our messaging up a notch and for moving us one step closer to becoming, as our founder Kristen Grimm put it, “full-on messaging ninjas.”

“This has been a tremendous eye opener. It shows us how to pull the aspects of communications skills, from the message, to the audience. It forced us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses in an effort to become more strategic in how we prepare our messages and communicate them.”

- Training Participant

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