As the year draws to a close, those of us working to advance social transformation are left wondering – what went wrong? With little exception, 2016 demonstrated that progressive change is a slow and often painful process. Perhaps the greatest lesson can be found in how innovation been sold – and who hasn’t bought it yet.
Far too often, when government agencies or non-profit organizations want to advance change on a mass scale they use a public education approach. This assumes that if people receive facts, they will make rational decisions to take action; all they need is information. If only this were true.
Inspiring social transformation requires the use commercial marketing principles and techniques. The behaviour change you seek is your “product”, and there is a “price” required to buy it.
Consider the challenge of single occupant vehicle use – the largest contributor to climate change in our country. Several kinds of barriers, or “prices”, create resistance to adopting alternatives. Physical barriers (infrequency of transit service), emotional barriers (fear of bike commuting failure), and – likely most important – social barriers (bus and bike are perceived to be contrary to “how things are done”) all need to be addressed before change is possible.
Beyond barriers, people need to understand the benefits of the “product” you’re offering, and here caution is needed. When behaviour changes benefit society more than the individual, we need to incorporate intrinsic values and avoid over-stating extrinsic values. Triggering people to think about intrinsic values connects them to a deeper and more compelling reason for action. The social benefit has to be matched with an attractive product (the preferred behaviour), and this is where campaigns often mistakenly emphasize extrinsic values, such as personal financial reward. Research demonstrates that “what’s in it for this place I love”, and “what’s in it for me” need to go hand in hand. Appealing creatively to identity benefits is most effective.
This approach is called social marketing, and it is based on decades of research demonstrating that people do not rationally weigh out the costs and benefits of a particular choice. We’re actually quite irrational. We don’t know why we make the choices we do, and very often, we choose behaviours that are not in our own best interest.
Does your communications strategy need a fresh approach? Start by re-focusing on key target audiences, understanding their needs and desires, and then launch a sustained marketing program that reaches your market where and when they are most receptive to the buying the product. I’m here to help.
Here’s hoping we can all do a better job of selling social transformation in 2017.