In today's digital age, people are so inundated with information that it can be hard to figure out what's worth paying attention to and what's not. For those of us focused on helping individuals make smart environmental choices, it can be difficult to grab attention, let alone get people to move beyond simple awareness to actually taking action. Convincing people to change their way of thinking from a consume-and-dispose one to a consume-and-save approach is certainly tricky, but not impossible. The key is figuring out how to make the first, simple action an attractive one.
The hallmark of most social marketing campaigns is to affect change by sharing information and increasing awareness through the use of traditional channels such as print advertisements or radio public service announcements. Some initiatives use celebrity endorsements or distribute coupons, but giving and obtaining information is only half the battle.
How do you move people to act? What's needed is direct interaction between an individual and a trusted source to help people take the initial step, but this is easier said than done. The good news is that, after the first step has been taken, spurring subsequent changes is often easier and can result in sustained behavioral change.
There are different approaches to attempting behavior change, such as incorporating prevention strategies into outreach efforts or instituting programs and policies to drive specific behavior. Working to establish and convey certain social norms -- or accepted standards for behavior -- can also be particularly effective.
Community-Based Social Marketing
One approach in particular -- community-based social marketing  -- attempts to take behavioral change to another level by understanding barriers to action. For example, some consumers may not prioritize energy efficiency because of a lack of knowledge or convenience, while others are more concerned with affordability. Community-based social marketing (CBSM) understands the importance of speaking to the interests and concerns of each individual and describing the benefits a simple change can have.
A key component of CBSM is the grassroots approach that utilizes trusted sources such as community leaders or volunteers to not only engage individuals in a conversation about the importance of making a small change, but to also provide a tool to enable action.
For example, instead of just explaining to someone how much energy and money could be saved by changing from an incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent light (CFL), a CBSM campaign could also provide a free CFL so that the recipient really has no excuse not to take action.
In offering both information and the means to act, a moment of reciprocity or exchange is formed. By agreeing to a small request such as changing a light bulb, the individual has set out on a path where repeated behavioral changes -- such as purchasing a pack of CFL bulbs -- are much more feasible.
Although CBSM can be used to address a variety of issues, I have focused on the environment because it is particularly effective in helping develop sustainable green behaviors. Big changes such as installing solar panels at home are often too much for the average consumer to contemplate given the cost and effort involved. It is easier and more effective to focus on the simple things people can do to make a difference.
I am speaking from experience -- my organization's energy efficiency campaign, Project Porchlight , distributes free CFLs in local communities and has been a shining example (pardon the pun) of the effectiveness of this approach. In one community, more than 90% of the residents who received a free CFL reported they had either installed the bulb or planned to. Also, there was an eight percent increase in residents who thought about using less electricity at home after receiving a CFL. It's great to think big, but these results prove the power of small actions.
There are many hurdles to reaching consumers and encouraging them to make environmentally friendly choices, but we can succeed if the right approach is taken. Community-based social marketing relies on not only the consumption of information, but also the interaction and reciprocity between individuals. Employing this type of approach is key in breaking through the noise and making a difference in the long term.
By Stuart Hickox - Founder and President, One Change