News  A Glimpse into Social Marketing

  • Division of Ecological Restoration

By Cindy Delpapa

I have been involved in volunteer water monitoring for decades. For the entire time I have been bowled over by the dedicated volunteers who diligently and enthusiastically undertake their sampling duties month-after-month and year-after-year and the watershed groups carefully interpreting the mounds of information collected. I have read the reports and studied the graphs packed with detail. I find the monitors inspiring and their efforts to improve their local waterways heartwarming. That is until I received an email from a talented and dedicated volunteer I had the privilege of working with. The email explained she was quitting- walking away from her volunteer monitoring work. What finally toppled this dedicated volunteer? In a word - frustration. After years of volunteer labor and tens of thousands of data points logged there had been little impact in the greater community on improving water quality.

Harsh as it was for me to admit, there was some truth to her observation. The data collected by volunteer monitors does not have the impact it should. But why? More importantly how can this unfortunate situation be turned around? The answer that floated to the top was to explore how social marketing might help. So in April, DER hosted a two-day training on Social Marketing (The Science of Making Monitoring Cool) with Dr. Bill Smith and the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance.

It is worth backing-up a bit to explain how social marketing differs from mass marketing. For one, social marketing is dedicated to social good. It is not about selling a product for profit but making the world better. It borrows from old school marketing but folds in a fair amount of the social sciences. Generally social marketing is striving to foster beneficial change. The change may be related to energy conservation or using sunscreen to reduce skin cancer but it is change for the better. Here are some of the key points of social marketing that Dr. Smith shared.

Who is the audience
Identifying the desired change is important but identifying the audience is also key. Dr. Smith made it clear the audience could not be ‘the general public’ if significant success was the goal. The truth is no campaign is going to influence everyone. The work is in identifying the audience likely to be motivated to change, figuring out the barrier(s) preventing this segment of the public from adopting the change and figuring out how to use this information to convince your audience the benefit(s) they will reap outweigh the barriers to action.

It is not about facts but about emotions
As counter-intuitive as this may sound, knowledge and raising awareness will not break down barriers and drive change. If it did the mountains of water quality data Massachusetts’ watershed groups have collected over the past three decades would have everyone installing rain gardens, tearing up pavements and dedicated volunteers would not be quitting in frustration. Social marketing identifies humans as an emotional species. This means emotion can drive change. As Bill bluntly informed us- it is not about facts but about emotions when trying to engage an audience.

Cater to your audience
Bill introduced us to the many tools used to overcome barriers to change- from storytelling to disruption. But perhaps the most fundamental piece of advice provided by Bill was to stop having ‘everything about you’. The point he worked hard to instill was the need to focus on the target audience. It is not about an organization or their needs (e.g. more volunteers). The goal is not to educate the audience so they can recognize the difference between low or high phosphorus concentrations but to motivate people to reduce their lawn fertilizing or to support the adoption of a stormwater utility to reach the low phosphorus concentration. Social marketing is about catering to the target audience. What speaks to them? What motivates them? What prevents them from changing?

Sell the solution instead of the problem
People can also get overwhelmed if a message is too complex or fear inducing. Face it, there can be a fair amount of gloom in many environmental messages. Turn this around by selling the solution instead of hammering away at the direness of the problem. Don’t bring up the problem without offering a solution. It is all about the target audience buying into the solution and perceiving they will benefit from adopting the solution. And do not assume the benefit must be monetary. There are many examples of simple actions able to save most people a bit of money,(e.g. turn down the temperature on a water heater) but the majority of people do not adopt them. What may work better is the next door neighbor walking the homeowner through the steps needed to adjust water temperature. The homeowner now feels a connection to the neighbor and the neighborhood– a stronger benefit than the pennies a day in savings accrued in saved gas or electricity.

Identify the benefits
Identifying the benefits for a target audience may mean asking or observing the segment of people you would like to influence. An upcoming clean-up might call for some strong and energetic volunteers. Consider changing your plea for volunteers from “Friends of Sandy Beach need volunteers to help us make the beach clean and inviting” to “Like fresh air, sunshine, nice people and a reason to skip the dreary gym workout this weekend? Come to Sandy Beach for the annual clean-up.” Note the first pitch is about Friends of Sandy Beach needs (volunteers) and benefit (Friends of Sandy Beach achieve their clean-up goal) while the second is offering a fun social event that will help participants meet a daily workout goal.

Capture their attention
Disruption, showing something unusual in a place it is not expected, can also be a great way to capture attention and open a door for more interaction. In Bill’s experience, surprising people may be one of the most powerful things a group can do to motivate change. Identifying what disruption might work may require really getting creative but the reward may be a great deal of buzz and recognition.

Tell a story
This article began with a story. The reason for this unusual beginning is to illustrate one more tool. Bill stressed the importance of telling your story. Storytelling is a key tool in Social Marketing because a good story will entertain, elicit emotion, be remembered and, if done well, motivate change. What story does your group want to tell?

  • Division of Ecological Restoration 

    DER restores and protects rivers, wetlands, and watersheds in Massachusetts for the benefit of people and the environment.
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