Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Targeted Marketing vs. One Message to Rule Them All

When I first got into this space advocacy business, I was looking at things from a national perspective: How do we get the whole country to support a spacefaring civilization? This sort of thinking requires a Herculean effort--attempting to win hearts and minds--change people, in fact. A few things have happened since my first ISDC in 1997. September 11, for one. I've gotten a master's degree, returned to the church, and done a lot more reading about human history. The more I read, the more I realize that John F. Kennedy's 1961 Man-Moon-Decade push was a fluke, a lucky conjunction of statesmanship, politics, faith in government, and wartime fear of communism. We've been sorely lacking in statesmanship (minus Bush right after 9/11) and faith in government for awhile now. Politics has become too polarized for a national consensus. All that leaves is fear.

We could, of course, push for the old nationalist line: fear of the Chi-coms, a resurgent Russia, a technologically advancing India. We could use fear of terrorism as a reason to push ourselves toward something greater--to prove to the world that our way of life is truly better, more advanced, etc. (However, our enemy is anti-technological, and in fact appeals to its followers by promising to bring down the technological powers.) We could use fear of environmental degradation to push our industries into orbit or onto the airless Moon and the asteroids (and thereby run the risk of being castigated by environmentalists for "polluting" places with no biospheres). We could use fear of energy shortages, gas lines, and more oil wars to get people behind space solar power. Or finally, we could use the fear of giant rocks from the sky to get the nation to support advanced technologies that would deflect or destroy incoming asteroids.

Fear, however, only goes so far.

One could press for more positive ideas, like expansion of the economy (my preference): hotels in orbit, machine shops on the asteroids, restaurants on the Moon. As the advocates kept reminding me at that first ISDC, "Anything we do on Earth we'll have to do in space." The problem with my idea of a service economy in space is that it still takes a lot of heavy industry and science just to get UP there. And businesses won't invest in new technologies to make the trip to orbit cheaper until they can be assured of a return on investment. The chicken-and-the-egg problem has long plagued the space economy. The good news is, it's not just government making the attempt now.

One could also appeal to altruism, spirituality, "cosmic consciousness," and the need for human beings to broaden their horizons. The Overview Effect talks about how human beings who have seen Earth from space have had a fundamental change of attitude toward their lives. Well, okay, maybe. But eventually they've come back to Earth and reassimilated among their fellow human beings, who are still as short-sighted and cantankerous as ever. One thing I've picked up from my reading has been a fundamental understanding that human nature doesn't change much.

So when I wrote my thesis in 2002, I decided to take human beings as they are, and assumed that they would not be overawed by a mystical, world-changing philosophy, nor would they submit to some technocratic rule from above saying, "You must do this for your own good." I assumed, instead, that they would think mostly in terrestrial terms, and that I would have to work with that mindset first.

I looked at the skills I had and the persuasive techniques that work in the "real world." I decided that what space advocates needed to do was incorporate a mix of technical communication (convey techical information), politics (change public attitudes and legislation), and marketing (developing goods, services, and messages that meet customer needs). Advocates have been working on politics and technical communication for years, with only minimal success. However, having spent 12 years or so at Walt Disney World, I knew the power of marketing--its ability to generate hype, increase excitement, and build name/brand recognition. I also knew that space advocates seemed to have little of it. A little Marketing 101 also taught me that mass marketing--devising one message for a broad audience--was passé. So I began looking at targeted marketing.

The messages that the National Space Society, et al., use have appealed to and attracted mostly WASP males. Picking target markets was easy: women, minorities, young people...anyone who was not in abundance at ISDC or other conferences. Call it audience analysis, call it market research, call it polling, it all adds up to the same thing: we need to know our audience. This means asking questions, taking risks, reading publications outside the WASP-male norm for insights. It also means putting off the space advocates' normal desire to talk about the rockets first. We need to understand what our Earth-minded brethren and sistren are thinking about, interested in, and doing; engage them on that basis first; and then relate their interests to space.

This is not easy, even though I consider myself somewhat sociable. It means risk taking, it also means risking occasional boredom, as I learn "what normal people" care about. I write that unself-consciously because I'm well aware that most people are not interested in space, much less advocates. But this must be done. It would be nice to think that some day we'll get a president at just the right moment who will say just the right thing at just the right time and--WHAMMO!--Instant return to glory. History and human nature suggest otherwise. We must take people as they are, one by one, or in smaller groups, and engage them on that level. When there are enough smaller groups interested in space, it will be easier to get a larger consensus for setting space-related national priorities.

Several years ago, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Red Mars, suggested that all reasons (for going to Mars) were not created equal, and that we had to be very careful about what ends we finally decide to pursue in exploring space. I find this line of thinking very short-sighted and more than a little elitist. If one believes that Mars or the Moon is only to be a haven for scientists interested in forming a scientific commune, then by all means, let us continue on the slow path toward a government-run space business. However, such an agenda will have a very difficult time obtaining, much less sustaining, political support over the decades. The best way to get human beings to Mars is to get more people to want to go to Mars. And, again, that means engaging individuals one on one, even if it takes a long time and even if some of those individuals use their freedom badly.

Targeted marketing amounts to a ground-up, grassroots approach to space advocacy. Top-down messages have less and less effect these days, and perhaps that's to the better. But that does mean a lot more work ahead for advocates like me, for many years to come.

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