Advanced audience segmentation – how to appeal to socially excluded people

PR students around the world are urged to target their communications approach to different audiences. This is often the first topic of PR101.

To help them do this students are routinely told to think about their audience’s education levels, age, gender, income levels and location.

But they get very little research-based advice on exactly how to target their messages for these audience segments, let alone how to think creatively about what other kinds of criteria could be used to segment their audiences in to homogenous groups.

For example, are they communicating to a largely socially excluded audience?

What exactly is a socially excluded person? The World Health Organisation defines social exclusion as:

Exclusion consists of dynamic, multi-dimensional processes driven by unequal power relationships interacting across four main dimensions – economic, political, social and cultural – and at different levels including individual, household, group, community, country and global levels. It results in a continuum of inclusion/exclusion characterised by unequal access to resources, capabilities and rights which leads to health inequalities (Popay et al., 2008, p. 21).

In the Australian context the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling has produced specific criteria to measure levels of social exclusion, and has produced geographic data of its prevalence(National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, 2013, pp.29-38)

Two recently released studies found some interesting things about socially excluded people, which provide useful insights for communicators.

Graeupner and Coman (2017) found that people who were socially excluded were significantly more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. These included the conspiracy theories that pharmaceutical companies withhold cures for financial reasons, that governments use messages below the level of awareness to influence people’s decisions, and that events in the Bermuda Triangle are caused by paranormal activity.

They proposed that viscous cycle may be caused by family and friends criticising them for believing these theories which increases their feelings of exclusion and may drive them to find comfort in conspiracy theory communities which will further entrench their belief in conspiracy theories.

Disrupting this cycle may be the best way of countering these kinds of conspiracy theories.

In an unrelated study Lu and Sinha (2017) conduct five tests to see what types of messages are most persuasive among people who have been socially excluded. Their work found that messages that were based on emotions were significantly better at changing behaviour.

They suggest that (as previous research has found) because socially excluded people are more limited cognitive resources and reduces the ability to scrutinise information that these people ruminate about their problems. Their five tests consistently showed that emotional appeals were more effective than the control group in socially excluded people and rational appeals were more effective that the control group in non-socially excluded people. Therefore they suggest that breaking the rumination cycle is important and that more emotional appeals and fewer rational appeals is the appropriate mechanism.

This is consistent with the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion and is particularly instructive to government communicators seeking behaviour change from socially excluded people – both for their individual and for society’s benefit.


  • Graeupner, D. and Coman, A. (2017). The dark side of meaning-making: How social exclusion leads to superstitious thinking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69, pp.218-222.
  • Lu, F. and Sinha, J. (2017). Speaking to the Heart: Social Exclusion and Reliance on Feelings versus Reasons in Persuasion. Journal of Consumer Psychology.
  • National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, (2013). Poverty, Social Exclusion and Disadvantage in Australia. [online] Canberra: National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, pp.29-38. Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2017].
  • Popay, J., Escorel, S., Hernandez, M., Johnston, H., Mathieson, J. and Rispel, L. (2008). Understanding and Tackling Social Exclusion. Final Report to the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health From the Social Exclusion Knowledge Network. [online] World Health Organisation. Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2017].

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