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.

Behaviour Change Tips For Beginners

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to behaviour change. But that doesn’t mean encouraging people to adopt new behaviours has to be complicated or expensive. In some cases, simply altering the way in which options are presented can encourage people to make better choices.

This approach is called ‘choice architecture’ and is based on a deep understanding of how people think.  It can be a simple, cost-effective means of influencing people’s behaviour.

Choice architecture is great for dealing with simple behaviours. For example, Google uses choice architecture in its cafeteria to encourage staff to make healthier food choices.

But when it comes to more complex behaviours, choice architecture isn’t enough. People don’t make choices in a vacuum. In most cases there are other determinants of behaviour that need to be identified and addressed.

One of the better behaviour change frameworks I’ve seen is Susan Michie’s Behaviour Change Wheel.

The Behaviour Change Wheel

The Behaviour Change Wheel

The Behaviour Change Wheel highlights nine ‘intervention functions’ and seven ‘policy categories’ that can be applied to support the selected interventions. For more information you can read Understanding Society – How Do We Change Behaviour by the Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute.  It’s an excellent document and includes interviews with several leading thinkers in the field.

A Few Introductory Behaviour Change Tips

Although every behavioural challenge is different there are some tried and tested techniques that can improve the chances of designing and delivering a successful behavioural intervention.


Incentives are used in the commercial and public sectors to influence behaviour. They can be extrinsic or intrinsic.

Extrinsic incentives come from outside the person and comprise things like cash rewards, bonuses and subsidies. As an example, just a few weeks ago the British Medical Journal published a study that found financial incentives for smoking cessation in pregnancy could be quite effective.

But incentives need not be monetary. Finding opportunities to incorporate non-financial incentives (e.g. peer recognition) can also work.

Intrinsic incentives are psychological.  If you can structure a specific behaviour to make a person feel good about themselves they’re far more likely to adopt it. For many people, simply believing that they’re ‘doing the right thing’ can be enough.

So when looking to encourage a new behaviour it’s always worth thinking about how can you incentivise.

Of course the use of incentives  should be tailored to your specific audience. It can be easy to assume that people will respond in a certain way, but when it comes to what people value, the only real way to find out is to ask.

Motivation Cartoon

Reduce Barriers

Barriers are all those things that stop people from adopting a new behaviour. They take many forms but most are either structural or personal.

Personal barriers are often psychological and include things like habits, fears and beliefs. Because personal barriers are just that – personal, it’s important not to assume you know what they are.

Ask your target group what’s stopping them from changing their behaviour? You can use social research methods like focus groups, surveys or phone interviews or perhaps make use of social media to start a conversation.

Most importantly, listen.  Communication is a two-way process. Many campaigns fail because too much time is spent telling people what they should think or do, rather than asking how they can be helped to do it.

Structural barriers can also seem obvious, but even the most simple ones can be missed.

For example – anti-littering campaigns won’t work if you don’t provide enough bins for people to dispose of their rubbish. Nor will it help if the bins that are provided get put in the wrong places. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve walked along the street holding an empty coffee cup, muttering under my breath because I can’t find a bin.  Instead, all I see are signs reminding me not to litter or risk a fine.

Most people want to do the right thing so it’s important to remove the barriers that might prevent them from doing so.


Ineffectiveness of Info Only Campaigns

Not enough bins?


Personal Motivations

What moves and motivates your target audience?

People’s behaviour is influenced by a range of factors that may include:

  • Attitudes and beliefs
  • Likes and tastes
  • Pleasures and gratifications
  • Control and choice
  • Hopes and aspirations
  • Life stage

Building an understanding of what motivates your target group may help you to design a behaviour change approach that’s more likely to succeed.


Prompts are often used at the point of decision-making.  That might be a point in time, or a physical location.

Most people know that commercial marketers use prompts (e.g. special offer signage, point-of-sale displays) to encourage consumers to purchase a given product or service.  What’s less well known is that prompts are also used by social marketers to encourage positive individual and community outcomes.

The image below is an example of a visual prompt that was used as part of a week-long road safety campaign back in 2010. It was run by advocacy group Preventable, and the British Columbia Automobile Association.  You can read more about the project here.


Traffic Safety Council Vancouver

3D image of girl painted on road

What’s The Competition?

What other things compete for the time and attention of your audience?

Competition can be internal or external.  Internal competition might include psychological factors like pleasure, desire and fear. External competition includes wider influences that promote or reinforce alternative behaviours (e.g. social norms).

Remember – your message needs to cut through a lot of other noise.  Think about it.  How much information are you exposed to every day? Again, it’s very important to work with your target market to get a good understanding of what’s competing against the wanted behaviour.

For example, let’s say you want to encourage a group of young males to start drinking low-strength beer instead of full-strength beer. The competition will include things like the peer pressure felt to drink full-strength; and a perception that more low-strength beer needs to be consumed (and more money spent) to achieve the desired effect.

To succeed in eliciting the wanted behaviour you need to find ways to nullify competing factors.


Changing default choice settings can be an effective means of influencing people’s decision-making. Simply put, the default option is that option which people choose when they do nothing.

The manipulation of default settings to increase organ donation rates is a much heralded example of its effectiveness. In Germany people must opt-in to organ donation program.  The donor rate is only 12% of adults. But in Austria where the default option is to opt-out, 99% of adults are organ donors.


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 inhalers and nicotine gum as substitutes for cigarettes is an obvious example.

When seeking to discourage a specific behaviour think about what can be offered in its place.


If you can make the desired behaviour fun, easy and popular you increase the chances of it being adopted.

Of course, ‘fun’ speaks to motivation, and ‘ease’ speaks to barriers.  ‘Popularity’ may also increase the chances of word of mouth promotion, social sharing etc.

Cue this great example from The Fun Theory which I (and many others) have used numerous times over the years to illustrate how effective fun can be at modifying people’s behaviour.



If a person can monitor their performance towards a given goal they’re more likely to succeed.

That’s one reason there’s been an explosion in the design and use of health and fitness apps.

A good example is My Quit Buddy which allows people to personalise and monitor their own milestones and targets.

Of course self-monitoring tools don’t need to be high tech.  The very act of writing things down has been shown to reduce the likelihood of people repeating unwanted behaviours.

Error Proofing

Effective design can make it difficult for people to deviate from the desired behaviour by making it easier to avoid errors, or by making it impossible to make an error at all.

Error proofing is used just about everywhere, from rumble strips on our roads to safety switches in our fuse boxes. Alcohol ignition switches are another good example.  They’re used in several Australian jurisdictions to prevent convicted drunk drivers from re-offending.

Many of the best examples of error proofing are so well integrated into everyday life that their presence goes unnoticed.


Error Proofing - Rumble Strip

Rumble strips are an example of ‘error proofing.’


Simple, Concrete Actions

Make sure that your target group is provided with relevant and meaningful information.

And rather than talking about the problem in broad terms, provide discrete and simple actions that can be taken to overcome it.

A Few Final Thoughts

Behaviour change is achievable.

Sometimes it can be realised relatively quickly and easily with a little nudge, but in other cases it takes a more holistic approach over time.

Either way, being clear about the specific behaviour you want to change is critical.  Set SMART objectives. Measure outcomes.


If you’ve got questions about a particular behavioural issue you’re currently working on feel free to get in touch.  I’m always happy to talk.

Great Behaviour Change Mind Map

We just came across this wonderful behaviour change mind map on and just had to share.  Its certainly one of the best we’ve seen.  Let us know what you think!


Behaviour Change Mindmap