The 40:40:20 Principle — reaching those you have a chance of influencing

There are lots of arguments being had by Christians on social media right now. And I mean lots! 

  • Is climate change accelerated by human activity?
  • Can women preach and lead in churches?
  • Should the president be impeached?
  • What does a generous Christian policy on immigration reform look like?
  • Should we have tougher gun control laws?

And that’s not to mention abortion, same-sex marriage, creation, etc. etc.

And the impression most people seem to have is that all that typing and posting and sharing and venting and raging and debating achieves absolutely nothing. No one is ever convinced of the other side. No one ever changes their mind. No one ever sees both sides of the story.

In other words, the conventional wisdom is that online debates are a complete waste of time and energy.

But I’m not so sure.

Recently, I was introduced to the 40:40:20 principle for social media discussions, which refers to the alignment of your audience in any online debate.

It goes like this:

When you’re seeking to influence others to your point of view, 40 percent of your online friends and followers will agree with you no matter what you say, or what you do, or how provocatively you stir the pot. That’s your base. They respect you and like you and value the same things you value.

Another 40 percent of your online audience will disagree with you no matter what you say or do or how ornery you get in stirring the pot. It is highly unlikely you will actually influence them with what you say, no matter how much sense it makes to you.

That leaves 20 percent. These are your followers who can be influenced. They might currently hold a different view to you, but they are open to being convinced. They might not have thought their view through before, or they might never have encountered an alternate view.

That’s the 40:40:20 principle – 40% in your base, 40% never in your base, and 20% you might have a chance of influencing.

Of course, this is just illustrative not absolute. And it will change from issue to issue. People tend to be more convinced of issues that get a lot of airing and about which they are regularly forced to think. Politics being the most obvious one.

But on other issues, people can get well into adulthood, believing what everyone in their family or church or social circle believe without being confronted with a different view.

When you think about this in terms of, say, a provocative Facebook status, your base will immediately ‘like’ your post, your never-base jump in with comments, arguments and sometimes attacks. And the other 20 percent will be silent or invisible. But they will be thinking.

I’ve noticed this with my regular online posts about women in church leadership.

If I post something on that topic, I get inundated with affirmation and support from my 40 percent base. I get strong pushback from those who are never going to agree. But the 20 percent I have a chance of influencing remain silent, and then contact me privately to ask for more information.

In fact, rarely does a day go by without me being messaged or emailed by a pastor, asking for reading material on how to interpret Paul’s seeming injunctions against women teaching or leading. They begin by telling me they’re a conservative minister who has been influenced by my focus on justice, reconciliation, freedom and wholeness. They talk about shifts that are occurring in their thinking and theology. They say they’re wrestling with their inherited beliefs about women in the church, but they’re stuck on passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34.

And then they ask their question, “Can you recommend a good book/article on women teaching in the church giving light to these hard verses?”

Bingo! They’re open to change.

Here’s the challenge of online activism. You need to think through your strategies for reaching the 20 per cent you have a chance of influencing. Few activists ever reach them, they just excite their base.

And, of course, the challenge is compounded by the silence of the 20 percent. I mean, how do you know if you’re getting through until they email you asking for information?

Now, I’m no social media expert, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in posting things online. But here are some thoughts to get you started in thinking this through:


1. Be consistent.

Don’t post once about climate change and then wonder why you haven’t had any influence. Show yourself to be consistently committed to a cause or point of view. People will see this really means a lot to you. And over time, the silent 20 percent will begin to shift.

2. Be authentic.

Don’t post about important issues and then never show that you’re personally committed to them. If you’re going to post about immigration reform, show how you’re acting to change things. If you’re posting about climate change let us see how you’ve reduced your carbon emissions. If you think women should teach or lead, let women teach you and lead you. The 20 percent won’t trust you or believe you if they don’t see evidence of it in your lifestyle.

3. Ask questions.

Researchers say the biggest problem with social media is that the amount of time people spend on it leaves very little time for reflection. People react to things they see in social media, they don’t reflect on them. This leads to a shallowing of morality and empathy in them. They are only firing back reactions, not considering how this issue affects them or others. To offset this effect, your online posts need to be overtly reflective. Ask hard questions that cause people to stop, pause, think, and wonder.

4. Tell stories.

Stories interconnect with social-emotions such as empathy and compassion. When I hear your story, I remember my own and think about how they are both similar and different. The worst thing you can do is have decontextualized statements/tweets/posts/videos/ blogs that are overly simplistic, that dehumanize, vilify, or offer final answers and applications. Learning is meant to be a journey and short-cutting the journey plays to your never-base. It creates radicalized people and internet trolls.

You might feel like you’re taking a lot of time to engage with the 40 percent who will never be in your base. But never forget the silent 20 percent standing just over their shoulder, listening in, considering your opinion, slowly becoming open to your ideas.


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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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3 thoughts on “The 40:40:20 Principle — reaching those you have a chance of influencing

  1. 40 / 40 doesn’t work for non-interventionism. Meaning, not going into more wars. honestly, most people support going into more wars.

    I’m curious what percentage of people support peace making (not meaning military intervention).

    Do you know any stats on that?

    1. Well, the 40:40:20 ratios are based on observation, not hard research. And the makeup of the 40s depends on who you are and who’s in your friendship/follower circle. So, you can’t extrapolate from this article that 40 percent of all people are pro-war or anti-war. That being said, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were extremely unpopular. But support for the military generally remains strong.

  2. A lot of the time it comes down to our skillfulness at arguing, something we’re not taught how to do properly. A good argument isn’t just two opposing perspectives bashing together like a pair of rams fighting for dominance! It is more like a conversation. Avoiding all of the logical fallacies (ad hominem and strawman being among the most prevalent) is crucial. No-one ever changed their mind because they were belittled into it!! Being a source of joy while sticking to the truth of the matter and conceding to aspects of the opposing view that are also true (no point arguing about issues that are genuine matters of opinion such as peppermint-chock-chip vs licorice flavoured icecream!). Starting with a firm foundation of underlying principles that are the core of one’s worldview. Finding points of common agreement from which to build a bridge of ideas that helps the other person to cross over is good too. Learning to tell stories rather than presenting facts. This last point is the one I am working on, it doesn’t come as naturally to me as being swayed by evidence.

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