“If we want people to care, and to be motivated to act, then creating a message in such a way that it resonates with the value of the recipient will increase its potency.” – P. Wesley Schultz
Last week I had the privilege of attending a workshop hosted by Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, a pioneer and leader in the field of community-based social marketing (CBSM). As an Environmental Psychologist, Dr. McKenzie-Mohr studies the way in which those working to create and implement sustainability programs can encourage people to adopt sustainable behaviours. CBSM is the tool set that communicates these values and changes to the audience.
The term “marketing” may provide an over-simplified explanation of CBSM and its implications for communicators. Marketing connotes traditional commercial marketing aims (financial), rather than the long-term change CBSM pursues (social good; financial benefits may be included). The marketing component is less about selling a product than it is about selling a behaviour – and there is nothing simple about doing that.
Regardless of the field you’re doing communications work for, there are principles involved in CBSM that can have important implications for communications planning. Many of us need to encourage our audiences to adopt new behaviours, make different decisions and buy into our ideas and programs. Applying CBSM theory and practice can help.
One of the messages that I took away from Dr. McKenzie-Mohr’s workshop was of the importance of thorough audience research. For example, we Ontarians are in the midst of a provincial election. Parties are promising major funding for new projects and programs. Some of these relate to sustainable transportation, specifically money being budgeted to allow for the expansion of the GO transit system. This project has the potential to save people time and money, and to positively impact the environment by taking cars off the road. We as communicators (or sustainability practitioners) can examine the validity of this kind of message by applying CBSM.
Community-based social marketing would tell us that any new program asking people to change their behaviour (i.e. taking the GO train instead of driving their car) is only valuable if people actually do what we are encouraging them to. Most of us have the best intentions when it comes to environmental stewardship. If I were asked by a researcher whether I would take the GO if there was a station closer to my home, or trains ran more regularly, I would be apt to say yes – in theory. But would that yes turn into a new behaviour?
We as communicators already know that there are many barriers to change in our organizations and in our personal lives. For instance, in order for me to take the GO train to work, I may have to get up earlier; add walking time to arrive at the station; and have to think about the logistics of carrying more items to work (I can’t simply throw my lunch in the back seat of my car). In the end, if the perceived benefits of this change have not outweighed the barriers, then it is likely I will revert to my old behaviour, or never attempt the change to begin with.
This is where communication is invaluable to the change process. It is our responsibility as communications professionals to understand the audience’s barriers to change, and to be able to devise strategies to overcome obstacles. We do that by identifying the audience’s core values through research (e.g. surveys, focus groups and observation). We ask them what the barriers to change are, and what they perceive as the benefits. Then we use our research to create communication plans that speak to the audience rather than assume that we know what they want.
This is where we often come up against our biggest challenges. Budgets, timelines and push-back from internal stakeholders can make it difficult for us to do our jobs right. But this is vital to successfully delivering any kind of communications campaign, regardless of the subject matter. We should never assume that because we have a good idea, that others
will buy into it; or that if they do buy-in, they’ll do so for the reasons we think they should.
And this is where I’ll return to the issue of GO transit expansion. I don’t know what kind of policy, financial and audience research went into deciding that this program would be good for Ontario, our environment and our communities. I’m simply using it to illustrate a point. What we should be interested in is how this idea is presented to the public, and what the results are.
We as communicators cannot be expected to work with an “if you build it they will come” framework. Those kinds of ideas end up costing our clients a lot of money with little return on investment. What we need to do is position ourselves as advocates of our audience. We do this by investing in audience research as a starting point for program development and
communications strategy. We stop assuming that we know what’s best for our audience, and that they will agree with the lens we use to view the change process. This is the launching point for developing valuable CBSM campaigns, and to my mind, measureable communications plans in general.
In the end, what we want to do is evaluate the efficacy of our communications. To do so we must build the proper foundation. CBSM is one tool kit to design and implement more effective communications.
Bryna Jones is the Director of Communications at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, and a member of the International Association of Business Communicators. Bryna’s project experience includes communications and marketing planning, advocacy campaign development, social media strategy, government relations, and project management. She also has considerable experience in copy writing and public speaking.