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The things we do: What's in it for me?

Roxanne Bauer's picture
In a recent seminar at the International Food Policy Research Institute, Professor Nancy Lee, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington and President of Social Marketing Services, Inc. explained some basics about social marketing and behavior change. 

She describes social marketing as a process that applies marketing principles and techniques to influence behaviors for the benefit of individuals and society at large.  The concepts of social marketing have had a profound impact on influencing public behaviors that improve public health, prevent injuries, protect the environment, and otherwise contribute to communities.

Focus on Behaviors
Social marketing focuses on behaviors, and campaigns typically revolve around getting a target audience to take one of six actions:
  1. Accept a new behavior- composting waste, for example
  2. Reject a potentially undesirable behavior- smoking or drunk driving, for example
  3. Modify a current behavior- using fertilizer less frequently, for example
  4. Abandon an old, undesirable behavior- stop littering, for example
  5. Continue a desired behavior- donating blood annually, for example
  6. Switching a behavior- taking the stairs instead of the elevator, for example

Target Audience
Once the desired outcome is identified, the campaign can be tailored to appeal to particular audiences.  What influences one group may not influence another so it’s helpful to divide consumers into smaller groups that can be compared to see which offers the greatest relative potential for change.

Lee categorizes consumers into two broad groups: those in the pre-contemplation and the contemplation stages.  Consumers in the pre-contemplation stage are not aware of their behaviors and can be awakened through fear and other emotional appeals.  A classic example is the way in which cigarette packs are covered with images of rotting teeth or young children in hospitals in some countries.  For consumers who have not fully considered the bad health effects of smoking, these images can scare them and awaken them to reality.  In contrast, consumers in the contemplation stage are aware of their behavior but have not taken any action to change. These consumers will be scared away by the very same images.

Those consumers that have progressed to the contemplation stage usually fall somewhere on a spectrum between awareness, interest, desire, and action.  Therefore, Lee further segments these consumers into three phases of willingness: the Show-Me’s, the Make Me’s, and the Help Me’s. 

The Show Me’s are aware, are interested in change, and have the desire to take action.  These individuals just need a ‘nudge’. Campaigns that explain how to change or that provide information are likely to resonate with this group. Parking lot signs that reserve spaces for handicapped drivers or speed radars that remind drivers how fast they are going are good examples of how a little nudge can produce the desired result with this group.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Make Me’s are often the most difficult segment of the population to change. These individuals are resistant to change or may disagree with the desired behavior change.  If one chooses to include them as a campaign audience, it is be best to appeal to their desire to avoid punishment for failure to comply. Adding information about a fine to handicap parking signs can discourage this group as would speed cameras.

Finally, somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between the Help Me’s and the Make Me’s are the Show Me’s. They are aware, interested, and have the desire to change, but they are not sure where to start. They are usually the largest group and are most frequently targeted by social marketing.  They need more support in changing their behaviors because they need to overcome a real or perceived barrier to change.  Some questions to ask in determining the barriers to social change include:

  • What are some of the reasons they haven’t engaged in this behavior in the past or might not in the future?
  • What would keep them from trying it?
  • What benefit can they imagine for themselves personally?
  • What could someone say, do or give them that would increase the chances they would do this?
Social Marketing Campaigns
Once both the desired outcome and the target audience have been determined, a social marketing campaign can be designed.  The most effective way to start, according to Lee, is to consider the “4 Ps”, which are product, place, price, and promotion.
  1. The product needs to be a benefit that is clear to the individual and that in some way answers one of the questions above. It’s also helpful to demonstrate a tangible benefit that can be realized in the not-too-distant future, if possible.
  2. Placement of the intervention is also critical.  Information or tools to make a change need to be accessible and make sense on a cultural level.
  3. The price of making the desired change also needs to be appropriate, given the product or reward.  This is best determined through market testing.
  4. Promotion needs to use effective communication techniques that are engaging, use prompts, and encourage people to make commitments.
Keeping the call to action simple is also helpful.  Show Me’s will likely respond best to campaigns that simplify the change process with single, simple, doable behaviors. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States led a campaign to reduce the consumption of contaminated fish and to inform anglers of the various health hazards that such consumption poses.  that presented information on several different fish, a map of the Southern California coastline, and recommendations on how (in)frequently to eat certain kinds of fish. It was not initially successful, and anglers reported that they found the information confusing or overwhelming.  As a result, the anglers either ignored the health warnings or chose not to eat any fish at all. The EPA then switched tactics to a campaign that was simpler and that encouraged a specific behavior change. The new message was “If you catch a white croaker, throw it back,” as the white croaker was, at the time, the most contaminated fish and the third most frequently caught along the California coast.  The new campaign, with its simplicity and clear call to action, reduced the number of anglers who kept their white croaker catches to only 6%.

What’s the main takeaway? Consumers continuously wonder, “What’s in it for me?” and will judge products and behavior changes according to what they perceive the answer to be.   Thus, if you want people to change, finding out which benefit they are most receptive to and encouraging it in easy, accessible ways can mean the difference between success and failure.

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Photography by Elliott Brown, via Flickr


Submitted by Anonymous on

What a refreshing review of social marketing! Love the idea of using it to promote increased fertilizer use for instance. I welcome ideas on how to use more of this approach in agricultural communications.

With regard to social marketing in agriculture, you might find this campaign interesting:
In this example, people were fertilizing too much, which was damaging the Chesapeake Bay through run-off pollution. Instead of discussing the big picture, the social marketing campaign appealed to the desire to eat crab with the slogan, "No crab should die suffocating in oxygen depleted water.  It should be steamed and eaten with Old Bay and melted butter."

I have also blogged about agricultural practices before- in terms of savings. You can read it here:

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