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A common mistake most social marketing efforts make. And how to fix it.

Stanford Social Innovation Review took a closer look at diagnosing why so many social marketing campaigns are ineffective and a framework for making them more successful.

This was especially of interest to our team, as Sukle’s work for Denver Water was highlighted in the report as an example of a successful approach to social marketing. After a decade long run, our Denver Water conservation campaign enjoyed unparalleled success dealing with an issue that dozens of entities had previously tried to take on unsuccessfully.

So what are the key considerations for marketers and organizations trying to tackle a social issue and create real change?

social marketing, denver water

There’s a tendency for organizations creating a social marketing effort to focus on building up awareness of the issue or cause, believing that will address the problem. This goes a long way to explaining why we have Co-dependency Awareness Month, Glaucoma Awareness Month, National Mentoring Month, Radon Action Month, Stalking Awareness Month and a dozen others in January alone that we’ll spare you from reading.

The assumption made here is that if people just understood what was happening, they would change their behavior. This comes from a communication theory introduced in the 1980s called the Information Deficit Model which was built on the notion that the key issue at hand is a lack of knowledge. And once your audience becomes aware, they adjust their behavior accordingly.

Unfortunately, there’s abundant research that shows that people who are only given more information are unlikely to change attitudes, beliefs and behavior. And as marketers for non-profits and for-profits alike, that’s not acceptable.

So how do brands and organizations go beyond awareness to an effort that creates change?

Four important aspects to consider:

  • define the audience to target as specifically as possible
  • create a compelling message with clear calls to action
  • develop a theory of change
  • use the right messenger

 

Defining the Audience

Audience segmentation is about making tough decisions. By selecting the group of people who can make the most dramatic impact on achieving your goal, you put yourself in the best position to create real change. It’s also critical that you really understand the mindset and attitudes your audience has and what the greater context around those might be. Without that understanding, it’s difficult to convey the right idea to them in a way that they’ll respond to.

In the case of Denver Water, we started by targeting a mindset: very eco-conscious people. Although small in number, we knew they would be very receptive to the message and would help us by creating initial momentum behind the idea, and then carrying and amplifying the message within their social circles.

social marketing, denver water

Create a Compelling Message with Clear Calls to Action

By truly understanding the audience including their attitudes, beliefs and the context that’s behind it, you can determine how best to craft a messaging strategy that will resonate with them. As important is to create clear calls to action that tie into the attitude or behavior change you’re seeking to make.

For example, because we spent a great deal of time understanding our audience for Denver Water, we uncovered their sensitivity to the concept of waste. That helped inform the campaign message: Use Only What You Need. It didn’t feel like a sacrifice. A message that spoke to conserving or saving would not have had nearly the same impact.

Our overarching goal was to change the culture of water conservation in Denver, but to do that, we needed to chip away at specific behaviors that contributed to waste. Incorrect sprinkler settings. Unaddressed leaks. Outdoor watering during the heat of the day. So, we focused each campaign on targeting one specific behavior which we educated our audience on while we promoted the desired behavior, like “water two minutes less”.

social marketing, denver water

Develop a Theory of Change

So how do all these pieces come together? Is it blind luck? Hardly.

Creating an effective social marketing campaign requires developing a theory of change, which is a road map for how we can get from today’s status quo to the desired goals that we’ve sought to achieve. That entails creating a plan that maps objectives, strategies, tactics and evaluation. If something in the plan doesn’t tie back to influence a change in attitudes or behaviors, it doesn’t have a place in your effort.

Use the Right Messenger

Even if you’ve identified the right audience, message and a theory of change, there’s still a great deal of importance when it comes to identifying the right messenger to deliver that message.

Persuading people to adopt a new way of thinking or behaving isn’t easy, especially if it runs counter to their current beliefs. That influence has to come from the right source, messengers they’ll trust and listen to.

That’s why tonality and the execution for Denver Water was so critical. Utilities are not exactly everyone’s favorite entities and people are very reactive to being preached to. So we wanted to make Denver Water come across like the anti-utility, like your neighbor instead. We wanted every interaction someone had with the campaign to be fun and unexpected. That approach, combined with our eco-conscious audience serving as ambassadors for the campaign helped embed it within the culture of Denver rapidly. We used non-traditional marketing and provided tactics like yard signs, t-shirts and other schwag to give people an opportunity to participate and show their visible support, which helped transform it into a groundswell of passionate supporters.

social marketing, denver water

This approach helped to amplify and accelerate success for Denver Water, touted as one of the most successful social marketing campaigns. At the start of the campaign, we were tasked with a ten-year goal of reducing water consumption by 22%. The campaign delivered a 21% reduction in the first year. 

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