Buyer Beware when hiring a Social Marketing Behaviour Change Consultant

One of my specialties as a marketing strategist is social marketing for attitude and behaviour change. I recently wrote a blog Mistakes to Avoid in Social Marketing (Behaviour Change) In the blog, I discuss the many mistakes I see organizations make when trying to develop and/or implement a social marketing behaviour change strategy. As a managing partner and senior consultant at CEPSM, I keep seeing organizations make the same mistakes repeatedly.

One of the top mistakes I have noted in my many years in the business is most social marketing initiatives seem to be run by individuals that have no background or training in either marketing or social marketing for behaviour change.  Many come from the field of communications, public relations or in some cases advertising which may explain why many campaigns are heavy on communications but lack basic marketing principles and techniques in getting audiences to change their behaviour. Many of the campaigns we see tend to be social communications, public education/public awareness or advertising campaigns but few are really social marketing.

I recently saw an article titled How to tell if an agency really does behavior change.

In her article, Sara Isaac talks about the fact that she spends a lot of time explaining what she does. She claims that outside of certain public health circles, few people had heard of the concept of using marketing to “sell” beneficial behaviors. Now, she points out social marketing — a.k.a. behavior change marketing — seems to be the “flavour of the day”, and lots of communications agencies these days are using the behaviour change label to sell themselves.

Many of these communications, marketing, advertising, and creative agencies have little or any background in developing or implementing behaviour changing campaigns, so it is “buyer beware”.

To assist government and non-profit organizations looking for a company to help them with their behaviour change interventions she has written an article on how to tell if the company you are hiring to do a behaviour change intervention “is the real deal”.

Here are the 4 clues she offers as a way to know if you are hiring the right consultant.:

1. Does your agency talk about research? Ms. Isaac points out that research is essential to every behaviour change intervention. Without it, you are shooting in the dark, and risk wasting your money or worse. Research is expensive, and there isn’t always budget for every project to do extensive environmental scans or formative research. But there are affordable workarounds.

As I point out in my blog, one of our major frustrations at our Centre is that many organizations running social marketing campaigns do not do audience research, and when it is done, it is not done well. I cannot tell you how many times we are told by organizations that they cannot afford to do proper research but meanwhile, spend tens of thousands on implementing tactics.

Social Marketers conduct research to determine current behaviours, identify target audiences, identify barriers and motivations, test concepts and messages, and set baselines for evaluation.

Marketers don’t assume they know how their audience thinks and feels. They do not simply follow their instincts or let their own ideas about what the audience wants to drive their programs. Social marketing requires an investment of both financial and human resources. Organizations cannot afford to try out different marketing options blindly. If their campaigns head in the wrong direction, they will have wasted their money

2. Do they talk about the target audience? Her second clue is when your marketing campaign includes “everybody” you are guaranteed to influence nobody to change their behaviour. And it’s best to do more than simple demographic segmentation (gender, age, ethnicity) whenever possible.

Segmentation is the key to effective social marketing but many campaigns are not targeted and focused. Very few agencies are familiar with the techniques (e.g. TARPARE) to use to develop segmentation strategies for behaviour change interventions

Most campaigns use demographics and geographic segmentation but with social marketing you are dealing with behaviour change and very few campaigns use psychographic segmentation to develop campaigns.

3. Does your agency focus on concrete behaviors and measurable goals? She points out that the more concrete and simple you can make a behaviour, the more likely it is that your target audience will at least sample the behaviour (the first step to deeper engagement).

My experience in social marketing tells me you need to break down big changes into bite-sized chunks for people. Start with baby steps: specific actions that people can sustain over time. Early successes lay a foundation for long-term successes.

It’s hard to simply stop a negative habit, so replace it with a positive one instead. It’s far more effective than trying to go “cold turkey.” Willpower is a finite resource: sooner or later it will be depleted. Everyone’s motivation ebbs and flows; what people need more than willpower is easier behaviours.

The problem with an abstract goal or objective is that there is no specific call to action. It’s important to translate goals into simple, actionable steps. It’s been shown that people are more likely to try something new if it’s similar to what they’re already doing. The use of nicotine gum as a substitute for cigarettes is an obvious example.

When seeking to discourage a specific behaviour think about what can be offered in its place. This step looks at the potential impact of the behaviour change. Our advice for encouraging behaviour change is to work on one behaviour at a time then add others on and go with behaviour change suggestions with the highest probability of change.

4. When they talk creative, do they also talk strategy? Ms. Isaac points out that she runs a creative shop. “That means we come up with lots of fun, creative ideas. But a good portion of those ideas go right out the window because they aren’t on strategy or don’t pull the levers on the 12 behavioural determinants that drive our work.”

She advises that If your agency starts talking creative execution before you’ve got your strategy pinned down, beware. You might end up spending your money on something that looks very pretty, and might even get a lot of attention, but doesn’t move the needle on the behaviour you are trying to address.

I have had the same experience. At our Centre, we see clients spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention a significant amount of human resources, without a social marketing strategy. Sometimes they will mistake a communications or advertising strategy for a social marketing behaviour change strategy but in many cases there is actually no strategy – just a bunch aof promotional tactics weaved together and called a strategy.

So as Ms. Isaac points out behaviour change may be the “flavour of the day”, but a poorly designed campaign will do little to make a difference on the issues you care about — and the world needs effective behaviour change approaches now more than ever. Whether you are hiring an agency or going it yourself, make sure you do enough research to truly understand the problem, define a clear target audience and concrete target behaviours, and then set behavioural goals as well as a strategy to achieve them.

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