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Tricks of the Trade – 1

For a few years now, “community-based social marketing” has been a buzz phrase for behaviour change programs.  Espoused by Doug McKenzie-Mohr and Will Smith (1999) in their book Fostering Sustainable Behaviour, community-based social marketing offers tools to help environmentalists to appeal to large segments of the population. The goal is to deliver programs that remove the barriers and enhance the benefits for widespread social change.

Social change campaigns are therefore underpinned by a clear identification of the barriers to behaviour change (eg. people who do not grow food in their backyards may perceive it to be hard work and expensive). The campaign must also clearly identify the benefit of behaviour change. For example, growing food in your backyard is good for your physical health, saves you money, and is better for the environment than purchasing your food from the supermarket.  Beyond this, a social change program organises people with shared barriers and shared benefits into respective publics or groups (otherwise known as “segments”). Like other forms of marketing, this enables the social change campaigner to “target” their communication and education activities. It basically means that programs can be delivered with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

According to McKenzie-Mohr & Smith, key facts to the success of a community-based social marketing strategy is identification of the specific behaviour to be promoted. Whilst the environmental objective (such as reducing household waste) can be achieved through a combination of resident actions (eg. reducing purchased packaging, growing food in the backyard, composting, recycling, and more), a single campaign will typically lack the resources to effectively promote all the possible actions. Consequently, an effective social change campaign will “pull focus” on one (no more than a few) key behaviour(s).

But how do you decide which behaviours to promote? Well, McKenzie- Mohr & Smith recommend that the key to answering this question resides in answering the following questions:

a)      What is the potential of possible actions to result in the desired change? In other words, to what extent does each proposed action contribute to achieving an environmental goal (such as reducing residential waste)? Of the possible actions, which offers the greatest gain (or reduction as in the residential waste example)?

b)      What are the barriers and benefits presented by each possible action? Do the resources exist to overcome the barriers and enhance the perceived benefits? Is it feasible, for example, to provide a compost bin to every resident as well as training on how to use it?

Of course, a community-based social marketing campaign is ultimately about people. Behaviours are human experiences so we need to keep people front and centre in our thinking. This in mind, who should your program target? There’s a lot of “preaching to the converted” within the environmental movement, but social change demands a different tack. We need to target people who engage in unsustainable behaviours (the behaviours we seek to change). But we don’t want to engage in an uphill battle, so we need to identify those people who are most likely to change, given the barriers and benefits that exist for the action we seek to promote.

We also need to ask: “What conditions will an individual face in deciding to adopt a new behaviour?” As McKenzie-Mohr & Smith assert, “We need to examine closely the conditions which lead individuals to engage in activities we wish to discourage, as well as those which would facilitate the action that we wish to encourage.”  With the people and context in mind, and a clear understanding of the barriers, benefits and prioritised actions to be promoted, we’re in a much stronger position to effect social change – to create a social marketing program that has the potential to “change the ratio of benefits and barriers so that target behaviour becomes more attractive” (Ibid).

It’s no small feat changing people’s behaviour. And whilst it could be argued whether anyone has the right to influence another person’s “way of being”, the environmental crisis we face world-wide should be argument enough. It is well known that the cornerstone of sustainability is social change. Information alone is not enough to meet the challenge. We must develop and deliver programs that emerge from a deep understanding of what motivates people to do the right thing in the face of so many people doing the opposite.

To be continued tomorrow…

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