The Qualities of Effective Service-Related Messages

Why Are Effective Messages Important in Service Communication?

If the intended audience doesn’t understand or is turned off by the message in any way, the entire effort has been wasted. Many service delivery programs provide information about services and products—“Services are available here”; “it’s important to treat malaria”; or “family planning costs X”—and expect these informational messages to be enough to change audience behavior. As discussed in the section on determinants , however, this isn’t enough. Communication must be tied to the communication objective and must address the most critical barriers to behavior change, which are rarely just knowledge and awareness.

What is an SBCC Message?

The message is a brief, value-based statement that captures a concept and summarizes the idea or belief that the audience should retain. These words, directed at the intended audience, are designed to achieve the communication objectives. These objectives are defined by what the audience must overcome (the identified barriers) in order to change their behavior.

Components of a Good Message

Every audience is exposed to many messages each day. Messages about health services compete for attention with professionally developed commercial marketing messages that have been developed by well-resourced companies like Coca-Cola, Vodafone, and Apple. Messages developed for service communication have to compete with these commercial messages for the audience’s time and attention. To do this, they must draw on an understanding of the audiences’ needs and motivations and creatively present solutions to the barriers to behavior change, while offering something in return. This is where it is very important to tailor messages to specific audiences. Everybody should not be receiving the same message because each audience segment has different information needs and unique motivators.

The following are key principles for developing good SBCC messages:

  1. Messages should be clear to the intended audience – Good messages are free of jargon and technical language. Messages about clinical procedures and health services use language the audience will understand, while maintaining accuracy. This might not be the same language that technical experts use.
  1. Messages should be concise – The main point of any service communication message should be conveyed quickly. Some argue that the key points of any message should be delivered within 15 seconds (the “elevator speech,” defined as the short period we have before the audience is confused or loses interest).
  1. Messages should be repeated – The most effective messages do not stand alone; they are incorporated into all related materials and communication channels, and they are repeated so they sink in with the audience. Although there isn’t consensus about how many times it takes for an audience to change their behavior, there is agreement that multiple exposures to the same message through multiple channels can help maximize the effect of an SBCC program. For more information, see Communication for Better Health.
  1. Messages should state the benefits – Effective SBCC messages should clearly state how the audience will benefit from adopting a behavior. Each intended audience faces specific barriers to changing their behavior, such as lack of skill, lack of social support, or lack of time. Effective messages clearly present a benefit—something positive that the audience will receive in exchange for changing their behavior. This benefit must be relevant to the audience. Benefits are typically described as functional or emotional.

Functional benefits describe the physical attributes that the product or service can deliver and how it works (prevents malaria, leads to a healthier pregnancy, has no side effects, is affordable, is easy to use, etc.). Functional benefits must be supported with proof. For example, claims of a service’s quality may refer to accuracy of testing or how clinical guidelines reflect international standards of care. Clinical trial data and project performance records can also demonstrate the effectiveness of the product or service. 

Emotional benefits describe the social or psychological benefit the service delivers in terms of the emotional impact on the audience, such as reassurance, peace of mind, confidence, or social status. 

Although most service communication tends to focus on the functional benefits, emotional benefits are important to emphasize, because it is these benefits that often drive human behavior. Without understanding the emotional benefits, the audience may not see the value in overcoming the barriers to adopting and maintaining a new behavior.

Examples of functional and emotional benefits:

Audience InsightShe wants an FP method that is discreet and low maintenance, but is afraid that the IUD will make her infertile. 
Benefit (Functional)Highly effective, reversible contraceptive that can prevent pregnancy for up to 10 years without using hormones. 
Benefit (Emotional)Quiet confidence in my busy lifestyle, this product offers discreet protection with no user maintenance that can be removed easily when I want to become pregnant

Additional Message Considerations for the Stages of Service Delivery

Service communication messages may differ based on the intended audience and the stage of service delivery. Consider the following questions:

  • How familiar is the audience with the topic or service and what is their attitude toward it? Is this a new area that they need more basic information about or are people fairly familiar with this topic or service, although they may have biases or misinformation?
  • What type of appeal do you think will be most appropriate? Appeals are the way messages are framed. Depending on the context and audience, some effective messages can instill fear (“AIDS kills, use a condom”), whereas others may use a more positive emotional appeals (“Be the mother you always wanted to be: Treat your children’s water”). Your decision on appeal should be based on what you know about the context, your intended audience, and the health area and stage of service delivery. For more information on choosing message appeals, see the National Cancer Institute’s Pink Book.
  • How sensitive is the health area or service? How do you balance message clarity with cultural norms that determine the rules about what can be discussed openly?
  • How literate is the audience? Messages and materials should use “plain language” and be structured to match the audience, and how you do this will differ based on the audience and stage of service delivery. For resources on how to develop effective messages and materials for low-literacy audience, see this guidance on using plain language from the National Institutes of Health.

How to Develop a Good Message

When constructing a message for service communication, first make sure the message has two components—a functional and/or emotional benefit and a clear “call to action”:

  • A promised benefit that the audience will realize by overcoming the barriers (determinants) and performing the targeted behavior. Benefits should come from an understanding of what the audience values, such as respect from peers, a better love life, a healthy family, or greater success. Example:It pays to plan, talk to your provider about family planning.”
  • A clear call to action – A statement indicating what the program wants the audience to do (the behavioral objective) as it relates to the services. Example: “Take your partner for HIV testing today.”

Then, use the Seven Cs of Effective Communication as a checklist to confirm that the message reflects the key principles of good SBCC.

The Seven Cs of CommunicationQuestions to Ask and Things to Remember
1. Command attention

  • Does the message stand out? Does your audience think it does?
  • Remember to give thought to the following details: colors and fonts; images and graphics; sound effects; music; slogans; choosing innovative channels.

2. Clarify the message

  • Is the message simple and direct?
  • Remember, less is more! Stay focused only on what the audience needs to know. 

3. Communicate a benefit

  • What will the audience get in return for taking action?
  • A key benefit may not necessarily be a health benefit. Choosing an immediate benefit (instead of a long-term benefit) is typically more effective in bringing about immediate change. 

4. Consistency counts

  • Activities and materials convey the same message and become mutually supportive in creating recall and change. 
  • "One sight, one sound" is a good motto. Pay attention to your use of logos, colors, words, sounds, themes, images and models.

5. Cater to the heart and to the head

  • Is it better to appeal to the audience's emotions, intellect, or both? Emotional appeals are often more convincing than facts. 


6. Create trust

  • Does your information come from a credible source? Who does the target audience consider to be credible? Ask them. Is it still the male medical doctor, or has that changed? Is the source considered to be credible the same for men and women and for different age groups? Is there a celebrity who would impress your audience?

7. Call to Action

  • What do you want the audience to do after seeing the communication? What action is realistic as a result of the communication? 
  • The call to action should focus on a concrete and realistic action and help achieve your objectives. 

Important Note on Pre-testing Materials

Message content, approach and channels must be pre-tested with the intended audiences before they are finalized and produced. Because service communication messages are often developed with technical specialists who are not members of the intended audience, pre-testing ensures that an audience will understand the message as it is intended. 

Pre-testing should include:

  • Stakeholder review – Allow relevant partners, donors, and representatives from other programs who may use the materials to review them before they are produced
  • Audience pre-test – Allow representatives of the intended audience to review and comment on the materials. These audiences should include clients, providers, policymakers, and community members. Their review should check for understanding, motivation, appeal, confusion, offensiveness and controversy.

For more information on materials pre-testing, Conducting Effective Pretests

Additional Resources

For additional considerations, steps, and guidelines for developing effective messages:

Sample Message: Demand Creation for HIV Testing in Swaziland

To encourage men and women to seek HIV testing with their spouses, PSI developed motivational messages that focused not on the functional benefits of HIV (know your status, linkages to care) but on the emotional benefits (showing your love and respect for your significant other).

PSI identified the key determinant for HIV testing as the amount of social support the audience received. As a result, the key message for the HIV testing campaign focused on testing as a demonstration of love for your partner—something that is very important to men and women in Swaziland.

The determinant being addressed was Social Support, which is the assistance that an individual receives to perform a behavior. 

Key Insight: If you trust your partner, then you have nothing to hide. 

Benefit: Getting HIV tested as a couple proves your love and commitment to each other

Call to Action: Take your partner to get tested today. 

When combined, the benefit and call to action comprise the key message. Note in the poster below how the text is not the same as the key message but it conveys the same idea. Remember, key messages are strategic internal statements. There could be several executions of the same key message. 



This poster from the Swaziland couples HIV testing campaign promoted HIV testing, in general, and not PSI's clinics specifically. For this reason, the poster did not need to also communicate the brand positioning for PSI's clinics with the key message. Many times, however, you will promote a PSI brand and, therefore, will need to communicate the brand positioning and the key message at the same time.