How to Design SBCC Messages



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Message design is the process of connecting insights about the priority audience with key information the audience needs to know in order to make the change the program desires. Successful, well-designed messages are simple, memorable, easily understood, culturally appropriate and meaningful to the audience. Their design stems from a clear creative brief that outlines what the communication intervention aims to achieve.

In social and behavior change communication (SBCC), a message is a statement containing key points of information that a program wants to communicate to an audience to encourage behavior change. In order to be effective, a message needs to a) include a clear call to action and b) address the behavioral determinant of interest. A message to a key audience, therefore, typically reflects 1) a desired action (which should be small/doable) from the audience and 2) the key promise or benefit if they perform the action. The key message often has supporting information associated with it.

Why Design Messages?

When SBCC materials and interventions carry well-designed messages that are closely linked to audience needs and the communication objectives developed in the creative brief, they will more effectively persuade the priority audience to change or adopt new behaviors.

Who Should Design Messages?

A small, focused team of key communication and creative staff can collaborate to develop messages. It may be helpful to include representatives that are fluent in both the language the messages are designed in and the language to which they will be translated.

When Should Messages Be Designed?

Message design should be done after the team has developed the creative brief, which is informed by the situation analysis and audience analysis. Using the creative brief for direction, develop the key messages and creative materials for the audience(s).

Estimated Time Needed

Designing messages can take several weeks. Consider the size of the creative team available to develop messages, how many messages need to be developed and the complexity of the topic.

Learning Objectives

After completing the activities in the message design guide, the team will:

  • Know how to plan and hold a design workshop that includes the creative team and key stakeholders, including members of the priority audience.
  • Identify and create successful campaign messages that will move audiences to change.



Step 1: Gather Background Documents

Before designing program messages, think about the information needed to support the process. Gather the data relevant to the health issue and audience, including the situation analysis, audience analysis and creative brief, plus samples of other messages and materials on the same topic from within and outside of the intervention area.

Step 2: Identify Members of the Creative Team

Build a creative team from project staff, creative professionals, content specialists, writers and communication professionals, and members of the priority audience, if possible. The team should be kept relatively small and focused since inviting too many participants to a creative design process can make it difficult to focus and gain consensus.

Step 3: Organize a Design Workshop

A design workshop helps foster creativity as the creative team works collaboratively to develop the best messages for the priority audience. A creative team can gather for a two- or three-day workshop away from work to encourage creativity and innovation. Key stakeholders and members of the priority audience should also attend to help generate ideas. A message design workshop can be combined with a materials development workshop.

  • Identify a facilitator who can lead the workshop and keep the group focused on the topic, and also energized and excited.
  • Organize the logistics of holding the workshop outside of the office setting.
  • If an external creative agency or creative professionals will be responsible for producing program materials, identify them prior to the start of the creative workshop, so they can participate fully in the creative process.

Step 4: Review Background Documents

The design workshop uses the technical information found in previous planning documents to create messages that motivate the priority audience to act. In a plenary session:

Background documents should help the creative team gain a clear understanding of the health issue, the audience and their needs (including key barriers to behavior change), the key promise given to the audience, supporting points and the agreed-upon call to action.

Step 5: Determine Key Message Content

Key message content is often developed as part of a communication strategy. If content has already been articulated, review it prior to drafting messages. If it has not been developed, use the design workshop to determine core content that should be included in messages. Ask:

  • Who is the audience and what are its needs, motivations and barriers to change?
  • What action does the program want the audience to take?
  • Why should the audience take the action?

This description of the audience and desired actions will be paired with the key promise, supporting points and a specific call to action to create a full message.

Key message content for an oral contraceptive campaign might include these messages:

  • Talk to your provider about side effects you experience.
  • Take the pill at the same time every day to increase effectiveness.
  • Talk to your partner about using the pill today.

Step 6: Draft Key Messages

Based on the identified message content, audience needs and barriers to behavior change, key promise and tone decided on in the creative brief, develop key messages.

When designing messages, it is critical to understand the audience: its needs, motivations, barriers and aspirations. Messages should match audience needs with a solution to help them overcome behavior change barriers.

AudienceAudience CharacteristicsDesired behaviorBarriersMessage
Unmarried men ages 18-25 wtih multiple partnersNeeds validation from peers. Motivated by public recognition. Aspires to be manly.Be faithful to one partner.To be respected by peers and considered manly, you have to have multiple partners.Real men keep to one sexual partner

Effective messages are clear, accurate and appealing to the audience. Each message should discuss only one or two points. Messages should be framed in terms of the benefit promised to the audience and the evidence that supports that promise (see the creative brief guide for more information).

Key Promise

Support Points


If you use a female condom at every sexual encounter, you will have the freedom to live your life the way you want.
  • Female condoms effectively prevent pregnancy (Fact).
  • Female condoms prevent STIs (Fact).
  • Marwa uses a female condom and has been free to pursue her career without worring about taking care of children (Testimonial).
With the female condom, you are in control.

The creative team can use the following checklist as they draft messages:

In addition to the above, when developing messages and materials, the creative team should consider the 7 C’s of Effective Communication. The 7 C’s act as a checklist that helps ensure that messages are interesting, clear, and effective in reaching the audience.

7 C’sDescriptionMessage Check
Command AttentionAttract and hold the audience’s attention. Make it memorable.Does the message stand out?
Clarify the MessageEnsure the message is clear and easily understood. Less is more!Is the message simple and direct?
Communicate a BenefitStress the advantages of adopting the new behavior being promoted.Is it clear what benefit the audience receives if they take the action?
Consistency CountsRepeat the same message consistently to avoid confusion and enhance the impact of the message.Are all messages consistent? Can the message be conveyed across different media?
Create TrustThe credibility of the message is important. Without trust and credibility, the message will go unheeded.Is the message credible? What source will make the message most credible?
Cater to the Heart and HeadPeople are swayed by both facts and emotions. Use both to maximize the persuasiveness of the message.Does the message use emotion, as well as logic and facts?
Call to ActionInclude a clear call to action. Tell the audience precisely what they should do.Does the message clearly communicate what the audience should do?
Evidence suggests that even if 80 percent of the priority audience is exposed to a message, only a proportion of them may actually understand the message.An even smaller proportion of those who understand will approve and a smaller subset of those who approve will actually intend to act. Of those who intend to act, an even smaller group actually acts on the message.This is known as the theory of Hierarchy of Communication Effects (see Figure 1 below).

Following this logic, the 7 C’s can help improve the effects of the communication efforts by increasing exposure, understanding and approval; motivating the intention to act; and encouraging actual action, as shown in the graph below. As a result, overall impact of the communication efforts can be increased across all stages of change.

Figure 1

Step 7: Pretest and Finalize Key Messages

Share the key messages with a small group or sample of the priority audience for their reaction and opinions. Refer to the pretesting guide for details on how to pretest.

  • Prepare test versions of the messages.
  • Pretest messages.
  • Revise the messages based on pretest results and the creative and technical teams’ professional opinions.
  • Finalize messages in preparation for materials development.


Audience Messages and Materials Worksheet

Communication Plan Template


CDC Clear Communication Index – Examples

CDCynergy Message Examples

Drinking Water Toolbox – Templates

Tips & Recommendations

  • Avoid jargon and technical terms. Use simple language, closer to spoken language than written language.
  • Be relevant. Speak to the audience in a language, tone and level of complexity that works for it. A rural audience with little education needs to see or hear messages that are very easy to understand. A high-level policymaker can handle and demands more complex and comprehensive thinking and rationale. Tailor the message carefully to each audience.
  • Keep it brief. For short form materials, such as posters, radio and TV spots, and stickers, messages should be focused on the most important information only. For longer forms, like ongoing weekly radio or TV programs, you can afford to stretch out the message to cover more layers of the issue.
  • Respect the priority audience. Do not talk down to the audience. You are not there to tell them what to do. You are doing this to help people make good choices. Think of your message from their perspective. Would you accept that message in their shoes?

Lessons Learned

  • Designing messages using the 7 Cs as a guide increases the likelihood of audience members identifying with the issue and feeling able to address it.
  • Pretesting messages is an important step in message development.

Glossary & Concepts

  • Audience analysis is part of the inquiry stage in the SBCC process. Aims to identify and understand the priority and influencing audiences for a SBCC strategy.
  • Creative brief is part of the design stage in the SBCC process and guides the development of creative materials to be used in communication interventions.
  • Creative team is brought together to develop creative messages and materials based on the creative brief. May include project staff, creative professionals, health communication experts, topic experts and members of the priority audience.
  • Key promise expresses how the audience will benefit from using a product or taking an action.
  • Situation analysis is part of the inquiry stage and is the first step in the SBCC process. Helps to identify and understand the specific health issue to be addressed and provides a detailed picture of the situation.

Resources and References


Making Health Communication Programs Work

A Field Guide to Designing a Health Communication Strategy

The DELTA Companion: Marketing Made Easy

Leadership in Strategic Communication: Making a Difference in Infectious Disease and Reproductive Health

SBCC Online Capacity Building Center

CDCynergy Message Mapping Guide [Website]


Banner Photo: © 2011 A.M. Ahad, Courtesy of Photoshare