Public outreach today requires tailoring space advoacy messages to specific target audiences. (credit: J. Foust)
Communicating with multiple audiences in space advocacy
by Bart Leahy
Monday, January 29, 2007
Given Generation Y’s lack of interest in space (see “The medium and the message”, The Space Review, January 2, 2007), it has become more important for space advocates to define and reach their target audiences. My master’s thesis discussed ways to improve communication methods for space advocacy. I described this problem as a marketing opportunity. We have a product we want to sell (space), and we wish to get the word out. Combining market research and rhetorical theories, I suggested marketing space to women, minorities, and environmentalists because these individuals were rare at space advocacy conventions I attended and had the greatest potential for expanding the movement. To begin, I researched how space exploration has been “sold” in the past.
Space was once marketed like other products, in a “mass marketing” fashion—trying to appeal to everyone with one message. This was common in the three-network era, when most people watched the same television programs, got the same news, and had the same assumed cultural experiences. The science fiction works of Robert A. Heinlein in The Saturday Evening Post, for example, qualify as efforts to “sell space” to a mass audience. These were followed by Wernher von Braun’s magazine and TV collaborations in the 1950s.
The most successful “space marketer” was not a businessman, but a president: John F. Kennedy tied public confidence in technology to a national security program to get the nation to land men on the moon within ten years. This was the apex of government “space marketing.” No single president or organization has ever gotten such support for space exploration.
|Space was once marketed like other products, in a “mass marketing” fashion—trying to appeal to everyone with one message.|
NASA tried to sell the space shuttle as a way to make space travel “pay off.” In 1984 Ronald Reagan proposed Space Station Freedom. However, the now-International Space Station faced continual delays, spiraling costs, and congressional opposition. George H. W. Bush tried the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989, but Congress choked on the price tag. The end of the Cold War reduced political support for space spending, while the War on Terror did not required new expenditures in space. Only the loss of Columbia caused George W. Bush to propose the Vision for Space Exploration, which remains in doubt. (See “The Vision at three: smooth sailing or rough seas?”, The Space Review, January 15, 2007)
So much for presidential space rhetoric. What about other advocacy messages? Organizations like the National Space Society (NSS) and the Mars Society (as well as NASA) have used two universalizing appeals, altruism or self-interest: new-technology spinoffs for the private sector and Earth-orbiting satellites to improve life for everyone. Political and marketing methods have changed since 1961. Mass marketing is all but gone. Social movements in the 1960s caused people to reject one-size-fits-all messages. Now businesses use targeted messages for specific audiences, e.g. women, minorities, teenagers, seniors, etc. While NASA had Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura from Star Trek) recruit African Americans into the space program, space advocacy organizations continue to sell space as something that’s good for everybody without addressing the needs of specific audiences.
At 52 percent of the population, women are no longer a “niche market.” Women buy or influence 80 percent of all consumer purchases. If women influence 80 percent of that spending, space advocates should market to that audience. Suggested strategies include:
- Avoid condescension. Don’t assume female audiences cannot handle technical material.
- Invite them in. Actively recruit more female members at all levels of the organization, from the top down. Women should see that their voices have influence in the organizations’ leadership. Why not recruit Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, or Mae Jemison?
- Make it relevant. Position your messages into a context where the customer will want to use them (e.g. spinoffs).
If space exploration is good for all humanity, why are some groups not showing up for the party? Many of them feel they have not been invited. Other strategies include:
- Employ public relations. Support issues significant to minority communities near you. As Guerrilla Marketingputs it, public relations can translate into real marketing inroads down the line: “By becoming involved in community relations—service to your community—you make powerful contacts, especially if you work your tail off for the community (and not merely to serve your business needs).”
- Learn the language. Guerrilla Marketing states that “The Hispanic and Asian markets have a combined purchasing power of $216 billion, and they don’t assimilate as they used to.” While this might result in a multilingual culture, it still doesn’t hurt to learn the language of potential new audiences.
- Make it relevant. See above.
- Open opportunities. Providing educational opportunities—such as space-related mentoring programs or educational materials to minority-majority schools—would be an excellent “foot in the door” for space advocates.
These efforts require legwork and social risk-taking, but space advocates need to ensure a welcoming environment and equality of access at all levels. If space is truly something everyone can do together, the advocacy movement itself can serve as a model for the togetherness we seek.
A 2001 Gallup Poll revealed that 47 percent of Americans consider themselves “environmentalists.” Space advocates are on safe ground with environmentally minded citizens.
- Remind them of their roots. The seminal image of the environmental movement is “spaceship Earth,” the picture of Earth as seen by Apollo astronauts. Environmentalists use the “greenhouse effect” (learned from observing Venus). What more could we learn by traveling to Mars?
- Highlight environmental benefits of space technologies. Satellites enable human beings to better predict the weather, monitor how our agricultural lands are used, and track the health—or lack thereof—of our environment.
- Advocate for environmentally friendly space exploration activities. This includes advocating for reducing “space junk.” Also, commit to discovering the presence and state of life on Mars before leaping into discussions about terraforming the planet.
- Advocate for moving environmentally-unfriendly Earth-based activities into space. It is safer to develop or store biologically hazardous germs on worlds like our Moon without atmosphere or life. Learning how to mine asteroids would reduce the need to strip-mine the Earth.
- Continue pressing for development of solar power satellites (SPS). Given high oil prices, concerns about pollution, nuclear power, and the public’s desire to increase America’s energy independence from the Middle East, space-based solar power initiatives could find more political support in Washington.
Returning to our point of departure, one might ask what we should do about the 18-25-year-old demographic. There, too, market research comes in handy. As a starting point, some suggested strategies for meeting their needs include:
- Show them the money. A recent USA Today poll indicates that 81 percent of Gen Y lists “being rich” as their primary goal, with “famous” being the primary goal of 57 percent of them. We need to emphasize the potential economic opportunities space offers.
- Challenge them. The same poll shows that their top three concerns are money, college, and career. If space offers solutions or opportunities for all three, then education must follow closely behind economic opportunity. They must see that riches follow from productive work, and only properly prepared minds can perform that work and seize money-making opportunities.
- Race for the money. If there is not currently a space race akin to the 1960s, there soon will be. Thomas Friedman has this one right: the world is flat among the technological powers, and getting flatter. China and India want to get into space and have the workforce to do so within the next generation. America’s technical supremacy is not a given.
|These efforts require legwork and social risk-taking, but space advocates need to ensure a welcoming environment and equality of access at all levels.|
While Generation Y is a current and valid audience for space advocates to reach, they are not the only one worth targeting. Women, minorities, and environmentalists represent three potentially lucrative constituencies. Others include retirees, educators, and (why not?) Gen X and Boomer venture capitalists.
While targeted marketing is not without challenges, the good news is, “NewSpace” firms like Virgin Galactic have the money and are likely to spend it to make certain they are reaching the most receptive paying audiences. Nevertheless, non-profit space advocacy firms should update their marketing approaches to catch up with the business world.