Old Media Still Active – Word of mouth and persuasion

Communication for Development likes what’s new. Where most academic communities are bound by cautious incrementalism, C4D has always sought to keep up with the times, trading a little certainty to gain more relevance. That disciplinary bias towards novelty is often helpful – but it is important to look back too.

New Hampshire - It's What's New. Image from the West Wing.
New Hampshire – It’s What’s New. Image from the West Wing.

In talking about New Media, we would do well to evaluate how new it really is. And in doing so, we can learn much by looking at much older forms of communication. The very oldest is face-to-face communication. What does the literature tell us about that channel?

Face-to-face communication is associated with higher levels of personal wellbeing, and other positive things (Wang et al, 2013). More importantly for activists, it is also associated with much higher levels of persuasiveness. Canvassing works better than other methods in attracting voters (Gerber & Green, 2000). Interpersonal contact seems to be effective at reducing prejudice, for instance (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).

Given that power, one nascent line of research is particularly intriguing. Social networks are clearly crucial, and these papers test the diffusion of real messages and real campaigns through those networks. Abhijit Banerjee’s vital paper explores the diffusion of gossip in Indian villages (Banerjee, 2014). David Nickerson has usefully explored how canvassing one voter can affect others in the household (Nickerson, 2008). Justin Schon has begun to examine how information and uncertainty determine whether civilians flee conflict.

These findings are highly suggestive for activists. If their campaigns are to succeed, they cannot only be online. Many know this, of course; in developing countries especially, the community meeting remains the dominant form of persuasion, organization and education (and more evidence is needed about how best to improve these).

Yet face-to-face communication is among the more expensive channels of communication. Activists always have limited resources. The social network research described above suggests one way in which they may make their efforts more efficient, by targeting the right people and allowing information to diffuse further. Still, careful judgments about cost-effectiveness will still be necessary. There are important theoretical implications to each communication channel, but for many activists, that practical balance between scale, cost and likelihood will remain central.



Bonus: Yale have provided an excellent summary on the literature on persuading voters.


  1. Stuart Grant

    Tom, this is a great angle which I never thought about. As you say, with the focus in C4D on new media and advances in ICT, there seems to be a lot of academic scrutiny on the irresistible forces that new media offer – technological determinism perhaps leaving more traditional methods by the wayside. Echoing what you say, traditional communication practices should still remain central to our understanding of campaigning, As Kleine (2010: p.683) noted, ICTs can make the process of traditional campaigning more particpatory and increases the capacity to disseminate information, organize and lead to direct action. The scope and capacity that new media offers obviously leads to uncharted waters that must be mapped out through research. But this process cannot be aleatoric , it should be an extension of our understanding on what we already understand about communication theory.

  2. Yoseph Berhane

    Tom, what I thought was interesting about your article was that when it comes to persuading, campaigning, organizing and educating people face to face communication is an effective channel of communication. I totally agree. Social networks are great places to gather and share information but they are not a great way to reach the right people. If one really wants to be an agent of change, one needs to get off the Internet, take ones message to the right people and say it loud and clear. In other words, one has to do the outreach if one wants to be heard. I used to do advocacy work for an Environmental NGO and our best outcomes came after we sat down with decision makers to tell our story and make our request. Face to face meetings are worth their weight in gold. However, in developing countries one can’t get the right people to get ones voice and make a request. One can’t use email, mail or fax to get ones message into the right people. Yet, I agree with you that activists has to make sure they are using a direct channel to the right people, not just shouting online and hoping that the right people happens to overhear.

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  5. Maxi

    Thanks for an interesting blog post! Off the top of my head, I’d add that accessibility to new media may also be a reason as to why word of mouth and persuasion still prevail in some contexts, given the high costs for the use of the internet in some countries.

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