Encouraging Behaviour Change – It Takes Time

“Preparation, patience and a willingness to play the long game.”

These were some of the insights shared by Lisa Cohen, National Programme Manager of Scottish mental health programme See Me at a recent seminar I attended in Wellington, New Zealand.

Many of the factors she raised that contribute to and hinder the success of social marketing programmes are the same ones we’ve been thinking about at New Zealand’s Social Marketing Network. In particular, we’ve been examining the challenges faced by two distinct groups – practitioners (the ones designing and conducting social marketing programmes) and authorisers (the ministers, managers or chief executives who create the budget parameters, time frames and programme boundaries).

Some of these are worth giving a wider airing.  Combining some of Lisa’s lessons with discussions we’ve been having on this same topic in New Zealand, here are four factors that contribute to the environments for creating real and sustained social change.

1.       Programmes, not campaigns.

Social problems require a systematic response, and social marketing, in its true sense, requires a programme approach.  Too often, we hear talk of “social marketing campaigns” – generally one-off or single-layer interventions that are often advertising based.  But while advertising campaigns can be powerful, on their own they rarely change behaviour, and do not actually constitute social marketing.

“A ‘campaign’ may be a part of a social marketing programme, but it’s crucial to think about the programme as a whole” – Lisa Cohen.

The challenge here for social marketers is that an advertising campaign is something you can outsource; it’s finite, tangible, and easy to measure.  Programme authorisers often ask for the campaign, without also demanding the rigour of a broader programme.

The trouble is, there’s not much sizzle in an integrated programme.  They have less well-defined boundaries, tend to be slower to build, and less glorious to trumpet.  But they also work better and in the long run can be more cost effective.  So our call to practitioner and authorising forces is to demand and invest in programmes, not just campaigns.

2.       Co-design, collaborate and engage (don’t preach).

Engage and involve the target audience in programme identification, design and implementation as much, and as soon, as you can.  The sooner you do, the more you invest in meaningfully gathering and implementing their input, the better the results in the long term.  In the Scottish See Me programme, it’s possible to see the strengthening of the programme (in terms of its reach and impact), the more they involved the voices of people with lived experience of mental illness in their programme planning.

Lisa Cohen says it’s all about talking to people – reaching them one conversation at a time.

The requirement for practitioners is to identify communities early on and engage them meaningfully in programme design and development.  For programme authorisers this means giving your teams the time and space to do this respectfully and properly.

3.       Be specific about the change you want.

The See Me programme put real effort into clearly identifying the specific actions people could take to make a difference and targeted those actions to specific audiences.

In our rush to implement, we often to keep our programme goals vague and our calls to action general.  Being specific requires patience and a robust analysis (including audience research) to properly understand your programme goals and the behaviour you’re seeking.

To increase the likelihood of positive change occurring, practitioners and authorisers alike need to adopt the discipline of being very clear about exactly whose behaviour they want to change, and what they want them to do.

4.       Invest in the planning process.

Lisa said they were put in the difficult initial position of creating a campaign before they had a programme in place – “building the plane while we were flying it”.

While this is frustrating for practitioners it’s not the real problem.  The real problem is the potential financial and social costs of this ad-hoc, tactical approach to addressing social problems.  The costs include, at worst, creating a campaign that has negative impacts and causes unintentional harm.  Other risks include wasting public funding and depleting sector, stakeholder and public goodwill.

To successfully create positive social change will require a stronger and more robust authorising environment that understands the value of a programmatic approach and properly engaging with citizens.

It might take time but, to quote Sun Tzu, it’s the slow route to victory.

Tracey Bridges

Founder at Senate SHJ
Tracey has 20 years’ experience working in social marketing and behaviour change communications in New Zealand and Australia.She has worked on programmes across a range of topics, and is known for her focus on strategic approaches to social marketing programme planning, research and evaluation.

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