Wednesday, May 28, 2008

social marketing

How do we get people to lower their green house gas emissions? How do we get people to act more sustainably?

We can enact regulations that forbid excessive GHG emissions, like an anti-idling bylaw. But regulations are only as good as public compliance, and public compliance depends on people's attitudes.

We can tell people about the threat of global warming but we need to be careful. Because if we just pump them with information about how bad a situation will be without showing them that their actions can make a difference, they are more likely to ignore the information in self-defence.

If we perceive that we have some control over how to improve the problem then we are more likely to act. If we perceive that in concert with others we can make an impact we are also more likely to act. Information by itself is impersonal. People are strongly influenced by personal contact with other people.

People don't necessarily need to know more about global warming. They need to know how lowering their greenhouse gas emissions is easy to do and convenient. Any appeal to change has to be in the form of a quid pro quo – if people are going to make a sacrifice they have to feel like they are getting something in return. That's where Social Marketing comes in.

Good marketing creates a set of benefits for the customer. Commercial marketers study the habits, perceptions and attitudes of consumers to see how they can produce a product that will satisfy consumer wants.

In social marketing, the goal is to reduce bads and increase public goods by influencing public behaviour. Composting can reduce the amount of landfill and add fertility to gardens – but only if people are willing to do it. Buses can replace a lot of cars on the street and thereby reduce traffic congestion and lower emissions, but only if people actually take the bus.

Why do some people adopt sustainable activities and others do not? Those who do not act sustainably may do this out of ignorance, or because they perceive barriers to the sustainable activities, or because the benefits are higher for competing behaviours.

The fact is, people will always find attractive – behaviours that have high benefits and few barriers. But a benefit to one person may be a barrier to another. Benefits and barriers vary both over persons and over time.

If we don't know what the barriers to a desired behaviour are, then we cannot successfully influence people to change their behaviour. In order to influence people we need to understand what are the actual and the perceived barriers to that activity.

What behaviours do we want to promote? Reducing carbon dioxide emissions can be done by increasing the fuel efficiency of cars, reducing the use of cars, by insulating houses, and by increasing energy efficiency. For an example, let's look at reducing car use.

The behaviours we want to promote are taking the bus, walking, and riding a bicycle. Let's narrow it a bit more. What are the barriers and benefits associated with riding a bicycle? The barriers might be: the weather, seasons, self-image, lack of physical fitness, fear of traffic, riding is uncomfortable, don't have appropriate clothing, etc, What are the benefits of riding a bicycle? Self-image, it feels good, seeing more of the landscape, enjoying the good weather, getting fresh air, exercise, saving money, etc.

Who are we targeting? This is a very important question. We do not target people who do not want to ride a bicycle. We want to know which people are most likely to want to ride a bicycle and which people are most likely to change their behaviour in this direction. Teenagers? Young adults? Working people? Parents? Here's where field work is required. Surveys need to be done in order to target the correct audience.

Once you target the correct audience you need to gather facts on the ground. It's time to observe what people actually do; to compare how people should ideally do behaviour to what they actually do. What are the target audience's perceptions of barriers? What motivates them? What do they see as benefits? Then you want to determine what barriers would be easiest to lower and what benefits would be easiest to add. This requires more research.

Now we are getting up close and personal because this kind of information requires focus groups to get at the right details. Note that, when dealing with focus groups we would want the participants to be uninformed about any campaign for encouraging cycling because if they were informed beforehand they would not be representative. Here are some questions we might ask at this stage:

1.What makes it difficult to ride a bicycle?
2. What makes it easy to ride a bicycle?
3. What positives are associated with riding a bicycle?
4. What negatives are associated with riding a bicycle?
5. Who wants you to use a bicycle and how much do you care about their opinion?
6. Who doesn't want you to ride a bicycle and how much do you care about their opinion?

Once the more detailed information about barriers and benefits is acquired from the focus groups, a plan is devised and a pilot project is attempted with a small selected group. The pilot project is evaluated and then the plan is modified until it will work for the community as a whole.

Behaviour Change Tools

The diversity of barriers to an activity like bicycling mean that information alone won't get people to switch activities. Personal contact is the key to influencing people which is why most of the tools of social marketing involve direct social contact.

Communication - present information that is vivid, concrete, and personalized. It will more likely be noticed and remembered and have a lasting impact. Know your audience – their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. To do this you need to gather evidence before you develop your message.
Have your message delivered by an individual or an organization that is seen as credible to your target audience.
Frame your message. Messages that emphasize losses which occur as a result of inactivity are consistantly more persuasive than messages that emphasize savings as a result of taking action.

Committment – Individuals who agree to a small initial request are far more likely to agree to a subsequent larger request. The act of committment subtly alters one's attitude. People have a strong internal pressure to behave consistantly. Example: During a blood drive, volunteers were told over the phone: “We'll count on seeing you then OK?” Just saying this made volunteers more likely to show up. Another example: Earth Hour – committing to turning off the lights for one hour.
Written committment is even more effective. Asking for permission to make the committment public leads to lasting change even if it isn't made public. Home visits, or when a service is provided, such as the delivery of a compost unit, are ideal opportunities to employ committment.
Existing volunteer groups like church groups and boy scouts can be effective in getting group committments or working door to door. We can ask people who commit to trying a new behaviour to ask others to commit. We can point out other sustainable behaviours that they are already involved in. The idea is that we are helping people to see themselves as environmentally concerned.
Committment must be voluntary. Do not ask a subject if they are not interested in the activity.

Prompts – are reminders to engage in action that we are already predisposed to do. We tend to forget to do things – we leave cloth shopping bags at home, we forget to shut off the car's engine when we are waiting, etc.. Prompts need to be noticable, self-explanatory, and in close proximity to targeted behaviour. Example: removable decals on dashboards to remind drivers to stop engines while waiting. Signs can be put in common waiting areas like school parking lots. Prompts should be used to encourage positive behaviours rather than to avoid negative behaviours.

Norms – People look to the behaviour of others around them to determine how they will behave. Start with people who want to do the target behaviour. Identify natural leaders. People are more likely to imitate or conform to a behaviour if they see someone they respect or look up to doing it.
Communicate to people the number of people in the community who are already doing the activity – eg., riding a bicycle to work.

Acting to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and acting sustainably are complex activities that transcend the kind of simple behaviour of switching brands of toothpaste, etc. that commercial advertising targets. That is why information campaigns, no matter how clever, are not usually effective. Social Marketing emphasizes techniques of observation and social contact that help form more long lasting and effective patterns of behaviour.


McKenzie-Mohr, Doug, and Smith, William, Fostering Sustainable Behaviour , New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island BC. c.1999

Bird, Tom, “Five Secrets of Social Marketing” Alternatives Journal, V 34, number 1, 2008.

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