To the average small business owner, the idea of considering Communication Accommodation Theory for their marketing strategy may be far more scientific than your usual plans and branding activities. But while Communication Accommodation Theory – or CAT – may sound formal, it can be a powerful tool when used correctly to inform and evolve your marketing.
What is Communication Accommodation Theory, why it is important, and how can small businesses use it to make their marketing more effective? Read on to find out all the details about how this psychology-rooted theory could be what you need to help your small business stand out from the crowd:
What is Communication Accommodation Theory?
A term originally coined in the 1970s by Howard Giles, professor of communication at UC Santa Barbara, the theory of communication accommodation continues to be a popular source of discussion across many fields, from general communications to marketing. Evolved from speech adjustment theory, the basics of CAT lie in how we change how we speak depending on the people we are talking to.
CAT is easy to see in real life, even on a casual level. For example, you may talk entirely differently to your highly educated colleagues than you would do to your childhood friends or your family. CAT takes this one step further by viewing that change in verbal and gesture-based communication as to how we adjust, minimise, or emphasise the difference between ourselves and the people we're communicating with.
People are social creatures – and as such, it only makes sense that we're all chameleons to some degree when we talk to others to get the best response or appear in the best light. CAT considers these differences and includes two different communicative behaviours:
If you've ever changed how you speak or act to fit in with the crowd, that's an example of convergence. In this part of CAT, you adapt to the other person's communication characteristics or people to fit in better and appear the same as possible.
Divergence refers to communication behaviour that goes against the grain and makes the social and communicative differences between two people as clear as possible. In the extreme, this could be if you perceive yourself as being in a higher social class than someone you're talking to – but it's often a lot more subtle than it sounds in most cases.
Why is CAT important?
Communication Accommodation Theory is vital in the same way other communication areas are essential to get your message across. Whether via voice, text, language or even visuals, the way we come across to other people can play a significant role in whether we're liked and considered the same or considered 'other'.
It can be easy to think of CAT and similar communication behaviours as unnatural or slightly try-hard – especially in the context of marketing or speaking to a group you aren't part of. But when pulled off well, adapting your communication can be an excellent way to connect with others on their level. Instead of forced familiarity, understanding CAT and its use can form natural and positive associations with a brand.
How can Communication Accommodation Theory be used in marketing?
With a firmer idea of what CAT is in your mind, the next step in making this theory work for you is understanding how it can be applied to your small business. As with any other communication tool or theory, marketing is where CAT can be most beneficial to your growth and development within your specific niche.
Here are just some of the ways you can use your knowledge of CAT to make your marketing better:
Awareness and outreach marketing
If you're reaching out to a new audience or looking to connect with customers on a new platform, speaking to them in their language is an excellent way to accommodate their way of communicating with your brand message. While it's important not to go too far into copycat territory, CAT can provide the building blocks that open conversations with new audiences.
CAT can also help make decisions on your advertising easier if you have a target audience in mind. Anything from gestures to manners of speaking and even accents can help your brand appear to be more attractive and integrated into your chosen customer base, making it easier to capture leads and bring in sales as a result.
Content and excellent communication go hand in hand, and understanding CAT can help get your messages across in the right way. From website copy to blog posts, social media descriptions to customer support emails, communication and content work together effortlessly – and CAT can ensure you're setting the right tone.
How to implement CAT into your marketing strategy
As a small business, you're probably wondering how you can use Communication Accommodation Theory as part of your business strategy. As a small but essential component, considering CAT in a range of marketing activities can help you reach audiences with greater consistency, leading to higher approval and positive brand awareness. Here are some things to consider:
Know your audience and speak to them how they want to be spoken to
Using market analysis and consumer insights, developing your customer base's persona is an excellent first step for any small business. From there, you can use CAT to create a specific communication style that works for your audience, based on solid research and understanding of their demographics, wants, and needs.
Create tailored content rather than focusing on your brand as a whole
While CAT is a vital part of marketing, it's not the foundations you should use to build your whole brand. Instead, utilise your newfound knowledge in creating relevant, brand-adjacent and CAT-tailored content that speaks to your audience and provides the connection needed for them to get to know your brand as a whole.
Consider communication as separate conversations
Communication isn't equal in all forms – much like how we, as people, don't always speak in the same style and inflection depending on situation and context. An email sent to an angry customer shouldn't be the same tone you'd use to create promotional Instagram content, for example. Consider CAT in its specific context, and you're far more likely to have a cohesive communication style that works for a wide range of circumstances.
When used correctly and alongside solid customer research and insights, Communication Accommodation Theory can help make your brand stand out in the best ways. By enforcing natural, audience-specific communication, connecting with your customers and growing your business is a far easier task.