When you hear the term marketing, you might think of a creative tv commercial, an online ad you saw or even the strategy behind the ad – how a brand has differentiated itself from its competitors, the benefits it’s offering, and the messaging guiding you to the checkout. For any private company, marketing is an essential process to gain recognition, attract customers, and turn a profit.
While historically less obvious and flashy, marketing is also important for public sector organizations. The success of public programs and services, compliance with new laws and regulations, and adoption of social or environmental behaviours largely depend on a government’s ability to do marketing right. Think of public health campaigns, home retrofit programs, anti-idling bylaws, or sustainable transportation plans. Getting public participation in these programs and initiatives requires very precise and effective marketing, especially when governments are expected to achieve bigger results with fewer resources while serving a diverse population.
Few marketing resources specialize in strategies specifically for public sector organizations. While the same principles of marketing can be used by both private and public sector organizations, a tailored marketing playbook for the public sector is needed. Thankfully, this playbook exists; it’s called community-based social marketing (CBSM).
CBSM is an evidence-based, 5-step approach that combines the principles of traditional marketing with psychology and behavioural science to design strategies to help governments promote their programs, services, and initiatives. These steps are – selecting behaviours, identifying barriers & benefits, developing strategies, conducting a pilot test, and implementing & evaluating.
1. Selecting behaviours
When designing a public program, you must first identify the end-state, non-divisible behaviour you want to influence, which should have a high probability of adoption, existing market penetration, and a high potential for impact.
For example, if a public climate change department is looking to reduce carbon emissions from buildings, it might consider getting homeowners to purchase energy-efficient products, but this behaviour is neither end-state nor non-divisible. It also has a limited potential impact. Simply purchasing a product does not directly produce the desired outcome of emissions reduction, and it can still yet be divided into further actions, depending on which product is purchased. Installing attic insulation, on the other hand, is both an end-state and non-divisible behaviour. It also has a high potential impact, a medium probability of adoption, and some existing penetration. Consider all these factors when choosing a behaviour to target with your program.
2. Identifying barriers & benefits
Next, define your target audience and research the barriers preventing them from adopting the selected behaviour and the perceived personal benefits gained from adopting it. Consider the barriers that might exist along the entire behaviour chain – the sequence of actions needed to complete a behaviour. In the example of attic insulation, people need to do research, choose materials and/or contractors, schedule the installation, and oversee the work. At every step in this behaviour chain, there are sources of friction which could potentially derail it. Consider the potential benefits too. Ask your target audience what would motivate them to adopt the behaviour.
3. Developing strategies
The goal of this step is to design strategies to reduce barriers and increase the benefits of the desired behaviour while sometimes also increasing barriers and reducing benefits of the undesired or competing behaviour (e.g., using a reusable shopping bag vs. a single-use shopping bag). The strategies may use the following behavioural interventions:
- Commitments – Leveraging good intentions & holding people accountable with verbal, written, public and repeated commitments to action.
- Social Norms – Using community standards, expectations, and peer pressure to encourage desired behaviours.
- Social Diffusion – Speeding adoption of behaviour through community connections.
- Prompts – Placing repeated, timely and behaviour-proximate reminders to act.
- Communication – Creating targeted, values-aligned messages.
- Incentives – Enhancing motivation to act through rewards.
- Convenience – Reducing barriers and making it easy to act.
To get people to install attic insulation, all these behavioural interventions could be used. A sign-up form and phone call could secure both a written and verbal commitment from participants. Case studies from participating neighbours could support social diffusion and norms. Winter-season emails, utility bill inserts, and phone calls could remind people to participate. Financial incentives could help reduce or eliminate the upfront costs of installation. A step-by-step guide, researched database of materials, costs and local contractors and a program concierge service could increase convenience for participants.
4. Conducting a pilot test
The next step is to test your strategies by testing and comparing at least two groups; one that receives the strategy and another that serves as a control group. Testing more than one strategy can also help to determine which individual or combination of interventions are the most effective. Measure behaviour change outcomes and revise if needed before advancing to the final step.
5. Implementing and evaluating
When a pilot test is successful at changing behaviour, you will be ready to implement the strategy across the whole target population. The program should be evaluated regularly and compared to a baseline measurement. This information can be used to make small adjustments to the program or provide evidence for funding and reporting.
CBSM is a tested, effective, and behavioural science-based approach to designing and marketing public policy, programs, and initiatives. It’s the public sector’s own marketing playbook.
By Mike Hager, Researcher, Clean Air Partnership