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Tricks of the Trade – 2

See Part 1 of this article

“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex than our subsequent explanations of them.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Ever wondered why people litter? Ever wondered why people buy pre-packaged microwave meals? Ever wondered why people buy oversized fuel-guzzling SUVs?  Chances are you’ve had a hunch or two as to why people do the weird things they do. When it comes to developing public programs for social change, however, gut feelings are not quite enough. This is not least because human beings are infinitely more complex than we often give ourselves credit for.

If people do not participate in sustainable behaviours, there’s likely a raft of potential reasons. The trick to developing and delivering an effective social change program is to discover the actual – rather than suspected – barriers to social change. We also need to clearly identify the benefits of the behaviours we wish to promote – whether it’s recycling water, growing food in the backyard, or catching public transport to work. The trick is to ensure the benefits outweigh the barriers – to make the proposed “sustainable” behaviour a lot more enticing and attractive than people’s default “unsustainable” behaviour.

Of course, uncovering barriers and benefits might sound straightforward, but it requires strategic thinking and action of our own. According to McKenzie-Mohr & Smith (1999) in their book, Fostering Sustainable Behaviours, there are some key steps to uncovering barriers and benefits:

  • Review the literature: We live in a world rich in information, so check out the internet, journals, articles and other sources for existing material that highlights where people are coming from in their behaviour choices. Government agencies are a good starting point, as is the United Nations (both UNEP and UNESCO have done a lot of work in this regard).  Check in with the major environmental and human rights not-for-profits as well. They almost always have an active research arm.
  • Develop your own research: Once you’ve got the ball rolling with secondary data, turn your gaze to the specific target audience you wish to engage. If resources allow, conduct focus groups, observational studies and surveys to explore in greater detail the specific attitudes and behaviours of your target community.
  • Write up the findings: Whether you do it yourself or you get a consultant to conduct your research, make sure you gather your information together in a cohesive form that allows you to analyse your findings. The purpose of this research is to inform (and help you identify) inspiring social marketing strategies.

All this is just the beginning of the social change journey.  Public campaigns are no small deal. They stand to influence large numbers of people, so it’s important to get the legwork right.  As McKenzie-Mohr & Smith say, “Knowing which factors are most important in distinguishing individuals who have adopted a sustainable behaviour, from those who have not, is an essential first step in developing a community-based social marketing strategy” (1999).

To be continued tomorrow…

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