The Question is as Important as the Answer: Thomas Kim

(This biographical piece is part of our series to introduce you to the SGA staff.)

Psychology is fascinating. I dug deep into this during my time at UC Berkeley where I was part of a research team at Haas School of Business and the Department of Cognitive Science. My research focused on cognitive biases and decision making.

Today, I bring this expertise to SGA where I work with a team to conduct market research to gather data on the people we serve. You can’t do marketing in a vacuum; it’s important to understand people so you can effectively reach them.

People have busy minds. We create associations where there are none. We see implications and work to appease a derived social norm. In other words, conducting market research is not just a matter of using the appropriate statistical tools or getting the right answers. It is about seemingly trivial details and asking the right questions.

For example, when you create a survey, some things you have to consider include:

  • Does the order of the questions influence participation?
  • Are the questions independent of each other or does a question change the meaning of the next question?
  • Are you giving a range of answers that are too big or too small?
  • Does the medium of the answer (Likert scale, multiple choice) influence the result?

Likewise, the way you frame or word a question can make a big difference. For example, asking a participant, “Do you believe milk with only 5 percent fat is good for you?” results in very different answers when compared with answers obtained by asking, “Do you believe milk that is 95 percent fat free is good for you?” Although mathematically the same question, one highlights the health concern whereas the other highlights the health benefit.

We gather information in a number of different ways, including:

  • Intercept surveys (going into the field and approaching people)
  • Surveys via mail and email
  • Telephone interviews
  • Focus groups

The method of obtaining the answer is also an important consideration and will depend on what you’re seeking. Conducting a survey of hundreds of people will provide you with a solid data representative of the population. On the other hand, having a focus group with a small group of people in a room allows for a deeper and dynamic dive into the subject.

With the research we do at SGA, we are able to understand our targets and create a more effective message and approach to better tackle our client’s specific needs.

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A Surprising Obstacle to Recycling Paint

The questions were simple:

  • Do you know you can recycle paint?
  • Do you do it?
  • Why or why not?

But when we asked Leo, a middle-aged man who had just finished painting his house, the answers were more complicated.

Leo had heard he could recycle paint. He wasn’t doing it, though, because he had also heard that he would need to show identification and pay a fee — two things in short supply. So he stacked all the paint in his garage and stopped thinking about it.

Recently our friends at PaintCare, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing paint recycling, asked us to conduct a survey to figure out what Latinos thought about properly disposing of their unused paint. We sent a team of surveyors out to Latino communities in Santa Ana, Los Angeles, Riverside, Ontario, Chino, Riverside, San Francisco, San Jose and Westminster in California as well as Denver and Thornton in Colorado.

What we found surprised us. A whopping 77% of Latinos surveyed kept their leftover paint in storage. An even larger 79% were unaware of the many locations that accept unused paint. (Check out PaintCare’s location finder and see for yourself.) And nearly every person surveyed was just like Leo. They believed that an ID and fee would be required to recycle paint. For the record, dropping off unused paint at one of the PaintCare locations is both free and anonymous.

Armed with data on the attitudes and beliefs of the Latino community, we’re ready for action. Our next step? To create a pilot program to educate and inspire Latinos to get that paint out of their garages. Stay tuned…

Naming our Data: Bringing Data to Life through Characterization

It often began with the question, “Have you heard about IPM?”

You yourself may be wondering, What is IPM?

For the past year, we worked under a CalRecycle grant to promote Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to the City of Thousand Oaks and the neighboring cities of Camarillo and Moorpark. We got to work and surveyed a number of local residents to gauge their understanding of IPM, where they struggle in the IPM process, and to assess their willingness to try IPM practices.


A few months ago, we mentioned that data on its own doesn’t mean a whole lot. Often times, due to an overwhelming amount of data collected, not much is done with that data. We decided to take the extra step with our findings, and identified how our data might prove useful for the City of Thousand Oaks in improving its strategy.

Meet Diane, Wendy, Frank, and Oscar:

Don’t be fooled, these aren’t actually real people—they’re personas. Using our data, we constructed these personas to help us create an effective outreach strategy for Thousand Oaks.

Just as we did in the case of Downtown Long Beach, we segmented our collective of data and transformed our findings into an actionable strategy for IPM outreach. By transforming data into character profiles, we were able to see how it applied to different segments of the community’s population.

With Diane, Wendy, Frank, and Oscar as our guides, SGA and the City of Thousand Oaks were able to create strategies and decisions based upon which persona our audience was most comparable to:

For the Wendy Willings, we focused on simply asking them to try IPM.

For the Diane Do-Gooders, we created a way for them to share their positive experiences. We gave these Dianes the opportunity to be champions of IPM amongst their neighbors.

For the Franks On-the-Fence, we recruited the Wendy Willings and the Diane Do-Gooders to influence Frank to give IPM a try.

For the Oscar the Outsourcers, we made them aware that toxic pesticides can cause serious harm to the community’s water resources and health, and encouraged them to pursue less toxic pest control services.

Thanks to these characters, we were able to use our data to simplify our target community in a simple, concrete, and memorable way.

SGA Wins 2015 CASQA Award

Who would have thought that a garden gnome could have such a large impact in Orange County?

Meet Gnorman:

Most people would look at Gnorman and see just another gnome, but SGA saw more than that! We saw the face of Orange County’s Overwatering is Out campaign – a campaign recently honored by the California Stormwater Quality Association (CASQA) with the Outstanding Regional Stormwater News, Information, Outreach, and Media Award.

We sent out an army of Gnormans across 34 cities, reaching 3.1 million residents. The primary audience for the campaign is homeowners, but the program effectively engages residents of all types.

This stormwater public education campaign successfully uses data to facilitate engagement across a spectrum of individuals. The challenge, which also ended up giving flexibility to our campaign, was tailoring our approach to a particular individual. We know that behavior change takes a while and that everyone is at a different stage of the behavior spectrum.

On one end of the behavior spectrum we have those individuals who are just learning about small behavior changes they can make. On the other side of the spectrum we have individuals who are already practicing the behavior change – these are our champions! It was very important for us to identify our champions, as they are the ones who are practicing the behavior change, informing others about it, and ultimately creating the new Gnormal! We wanted to give individuals a challenge that they could meet and one that they were ready to tackle so that they would remain engaged with the campaign.

The success of the campaign came from tailoring our communication strategy to the individual depending on where they are on the behavior spectrum. Acknowledging that people are only going to be engaged to the extent that they are able to connect to what we are talking about, allowed us to ultimately reach and engage a broader audience!

For more information on the campaign and our dear friend Gnorman, make your way over to Join the movement and Go Gnome Yourself!!

How to Create a Successful Behavior Change Campaign

Making social change requires having big ideas and lofty goals. It also requires having some very tangible results – a way to measure success and impact. Building long-term, lasting results means eliminating barriers and taking action. But how do we do that? These barriers may be plentiful, typically the larger the impact you want to make the more barriers that are in your way. Below are 3 tips to help galvanize people, break down barriers and make some real change!

1) Build a narrative: People like stories. The better the story, the more likely it is that the person hearing it will repeat it to his or her friends. Amazing stories bring people together and popularize an issue. If you are planning on building a campaign to make social impact, say promoting the use of solar energy, your efforts will be greatly strengthened if you can tie this issue to a story line.

2) Humanize the campaign: Similar to telling a story, your campaign must make sense to people. It must resonate with their daily lives and tug at their heartstrings. Once you have discovered your target audience you must be creative and entice these people by making your campaign real to them. In short, this means you must speak their language. It also means you must listen to what they have to say. If people can relate to your message they are all the more likely to overcome barriers and make change.

3) Stay positive: Sometimes the simplest advice is the best advice. This is one of those times. Often people are turned off by negativity. Speaking to people’s strengths, to their inherent good, is always a better approach than criticizing their behaviors. Take an example like littering: instead of pointing out how bad littering is for the environment, talk about the advantages of recycling. Doing so will help build awareness, but it will also provide people with a positive reason for changing their behavior.

If you are able to effectively utilize all three tips in conjunction with one another, you’ll be off to a very good start. But remember to create short-term objectives so that you can measure success.

Dude, Where’s My Bag?

Dog owners know that picking up after one’s dog is the right thing to do. The trick is to get them to actually do it.

Fresh off the presses, we present the results of our program to reduce pet waste on behalf of the San Bernardino County Stormwater Program. Over a one-year period, we found the percentage of dog owners who attached the waste bag canister to their dog’s leash jump to 83% from 52%, a jump of nearly 60 (far exceeding our goal of 10%!). Of the 190 dog owners surveyed this year, we also found that 92% said they planned on refilling the canister with more bags once the bags ran out.

Why does this matter?

In 2010, we learned through an initial survey that the biggest barrier to dog owners picking up after their dogs was not having a bag to scoop the poop in. Just over half of the 95 dog owners surveyed cited being bag-less as the culprit for not picking up. What motivated them to pick up? Being around friends, being watched or judged or the feeling like they ‘have to’ – in short, the social norm that picking up is the right thing to do and not doing so would be frown upon.

Behavior change comes when you lower the barriers and promote the motivators. If over half of dog owners say they don’t pick up because they don’t have a bag, we decided we’d provide free waste bag canisters to dog owners. If they feared social disapproval from not picking up, we would encourage those doing the right thing to share the message and free bag promotion with their friends and family to help establish picking up as a norm.

So our latest campaign focused on having a visible waste bag when walking a dog that would make it more likely for dog owners to pick up. We wanted to make it socially unacceptable not to have a visible bag when walking your dog. First, we distributed 886 free waste bag canisters. Then, we sent a reminder to every dog owner who received a canister to attach the canister on a leash. A few months later, when we projected the bags in the canister would run out, we sent an email to those same dog owners to remember to share the free canister promo with friends and family and to refill the canister with bags. Demonstrating the power of social norms, over half (53%) of those surveyed this year said they had shared our campaign with someone they know.

Based on our research, having a visible bag will likely increase the chances of picking up after their dog. More than the visual pain, preventing static dog waste is an environmental boon: dog waste is a major contributor to bacteria in our waterways. So correctly eliminating pet waste not only keeps our neighborhoods clean, it keeps our water cleaner too. From audience analysis to action and evaluation, that’s CBSM at work!

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