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Conserve water.  Use less energy.  Go Green.  Drive less.  Walk more. Eat more vegetables, less red meat.  Exercise 30 minutes a day.

We are bombarded with information on topics such as these.  But does all that information affect our actions?  Does that information illicit true behavior change?

A large number of studies show that while education and advertising can be effective in creating awareness and in changing attitudes (we know we should take shorter showers), changes in behaviors rarely occur as a result of simply providing information (do we actually set the 5 minute shower timer?).  Barriers exist for behavior change that information alone cannot address. (Social Marketing to Protect the Environment). Instead, behavior change is most effectively achieved through initiatives that focus on removing barriers to an activity, while simultaneously enhancing the activities’ benefits (ibid).

This does not mean that information bombardment is all for not.  Information is essential for communicating that a problem exists and that there is a solution to the problem. And audiences often become engaged when they understand the source of a problem, like pollution. But this is not typically enough to get people to change their behavior.  (We still drive to the grocery that is 5 blocks away).

Additional strategies are required to get residents to transform that information into action. In the public relations programs focused on behavior change that Cook + Schmid has implemented, we have discovered that residents often want to conserve, for example, but are overwhelmed to the point of paralysis by the huge amounts of information with which they are presented.

To achieve behavior change, it’s critical to go beyond the typical public relations and marketing tactics and to provide clear and specific steps that residents can take. And to do that, you must know your audience.  Cook + Schmid has designed and implemented successful behavior change campaigns by carefully identifying specific goals for a program and going beyond providing information to include interaction on a personal level.

Lake full to the top with water.

Lake Oroville before the drought.

Water receeds from the shore as the lake shrinks.

Lake Oroville after the drought.

While achieving sustainable behavior change will always be a challenge, we have conducted campaigns that have been statistically successful. We believe that to develop a program that results in true behavior change requires:

  • Prioritizing the desired behaviors
  • Identifying the barriers to behavior change
  • Identifying the relevant key messages and prompts
  • Identifying the tactics to achieve change and overcome barriers

Please read the following steps for a successful behavior change campaign, as outlined in Behaviour Change for Combating Climate Change.  Implement them, and see the difference between changing attitudes and awareness, and changing behavior.

Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to create sustainable behavior change:

  1. Understand your audience. Research their values, aspirations, behaviors and barriers to change. This can be accomplished through survey research and focus groups as well as observational field studies.
  2. Messaging. Understanding your audience will help develop messaging that will resonate with residents. Sometimes the best motivator to conserve is saving money. Sometimes it’s something else, depending on the community. Our research has shown that referring to benefits for future generations is often a good motivator for sustainable behavior change. In addition, care must be taken with negative messaging, which often can backfire.
  3. Social forces. Community based social marketing is about changing social norms. In order to do this, face-to-face contact is important. Respected peers, family, and colleagues can be effective advocates and allies. Peer pressure can be a powerful tool.
  4. Visualization. Campaigns are most effective when residents can see the threats or benefits of their actions. If these are too abstract, achieving results can be difficult. This is why, in one of our water conservation programs, we use yard signs to communicate how much water neighbors have saved. Other tactics include social media or infographics. For Southern California water districts, we created collateral materials with dramatic photos of depleted reservoirs that showed clearly the severity of the drought.
  5. Use a credible source of information. Choose spokespeople who are highly trusted by your residents, such as a community leader. Sometimes the agency leading the effort works well.
  6. Commitment. When people formally commit to do something, their likelihood of following through increases dramatically. Start with a small request, like putting a small sign in a window supporting conservation or a “like” on Facebook, then move on to asking for larger commitments.

Achieving sustainable behavior change is always a challenge. But prioritizing goals, doing the research to identify barriers and developing a strategy to help residents overcome those barriers will be more successful than just throwing information at the problem.