Not All Motivators are Created Equal [Guide]

In the late 1960s, Stanford University professor Walter Michel began his now classic “Marshmallow Experiments.” He offered four and five year olds a choice: they could have one marshmallow now (he put it in front of them) or, if they could wait 15 minutes, he would give them a second marshmallow.

Not surprisingly, most of the kids couldn’t wait and gobbled down their one marshmallow. But a few did show restraint. What Michel observed was that the ones that waited had found ways to distract themselves and focus on something else for the 15 minutes.

Michel followed these kids throughout school, college and into early adult life and found that those few kids that could delay gratification on average did much better in school, at work, and even in their marriage than those who gobbled down that first marshmallow.

Delayed gratification pays off. But it’s also hard, which is why we struggle to save money for retirement, exercise for long-term health and balance modern life with environmental impact. Smart behavior change campaigns have to overcome this difficulty all the time. Most people can understand the long-term benefit of change. It’s just that the far-away benefit is not as compelling a motivation as the small and immediate barriers and motivators.

For example, let’s take clean water. Many people will say that they are motivated to keep our creeks, rivers and oceans clean. That’s a big motivator. But when faced with the choice to pick up after their dog to keep the water clean, personal barriers (I don’t have a bag, other people leave theirs) and motivators (I want to be a good neighbor, this protects my kids) become far more powerful.

The fact is, we can’t focus on the big long-term motivators all the time. There’s too much uncertainty attached to them and the seductive gratification of our current behaviors is very compelling.

So how do we get around this seeming paradox? We shift our thinking about what makes a motivator effective. Most behavior change campaigns focus on the ultimate goal–the big environmental change or societal improvement that will occur if we just stay determined. To change behavior in a lasting way, we need to focus on short-term wins and immediate gains.

My next blog will show you the secret motivator to bringing about change in a meaningful way!

Public Education Isn’t About Education [Guide]

At first glance, public education seems pretty easy. You educate the public with all of the reasons they should or shouldn’t do something; the public embraces the logic you’ve so simply laid out and changes their behavior. Well done.

Here’s the problem. Education does not equal behavior change. Increasing knowledge removes an information barrier, but it doesn’t necessarily morph into a motivation to change.

We saw this first hand in the 1990s with teen anti-smoking campaigns. For years, teen smoking had been stubbornly increasing, and conventional wisdom figured young people just didn’t know how bad it was for them. Thanks to a $200 million settlement from the major tobacco, programs suddenly had the funding to blanket high school and college kids with information on the health effects of tobacco.

So Harvard economics professor W. Kip Viscusi began studying the results and found that the programs were definitely educating teens. These young people had become fully fluent in the health risks of smoking. Success! Except that smoking rates didn’t decline—they actually increased! Even more ironic? They teens who had just picked up the habit overestimated the risks to their health by almost 50%!

What’s going on here? In this case, a teen learns that smoking could cause him to die at 75 rather than 81. Well, that may not mean that much at 17. And when compared with the strong motivation to rebel against adult thinking, it may mean even less. What these public education campaigns missed was that behavior change results from removing barriers to change while providing your audience with their motivation to take action.

A lack of knowledge may be a barrier to change, but just putting out information doesn’t change minds or behaviors. It’s still important, of course. Think of your most recent New Year’s resolution. You had to be aware of the problem to even make the resolution to change. But if you have any hope of keeping the resolution alive past February, you’ll likely need personal motivation, community support and a few other tools along the way.


Rule No. 1: Providing quality, truthful information is just the first step in behavior change campaigns.

Next up? Rule No. 2: Not all motivations are equal.

How to Reach Really Big Audiences

The two magic words in getting people to change their behavior are barriers and motivators. Whenever SGA starts a community-based social marketing campaign, we find out two things about our audience: what stands in their way of stopping a bad behavior and what would inspire them to adopt a good one.

It seems simple, but different people have different barriers and motivators within the same geographical area. So often we set out to segment that audience by characteristics, demographics and geography so we can create specific messaging and outreach that resonates to a particular group of people.

One of SGA’s most robust examples of audience segmentation is the pesticide pollution prevention campaign we created for the Contra Costa Clean Water Program.  Contra Costa County covers 802 square miles and its 1,094,205 residents make it the 9th most populated county in California, so we had our work cut out for us. After comprehensive phone surveys and focus groups, SGA created three different pesticide campaigns to address three desired behavior changes—and catered them to a specific audience (and set of barriers and motivators) in the County.

My Green Garden

Goal: Encourage people to try less toxic alternatives
Audience: Women who garden and/or have kids or pets
Location: West and Central Counties
Barriers: Lack of knowledge of non-toxic alternatives and concerns about effectiveness
Motivators: The desire to protect their children and pets from toxic exposure

Pesticides Linger

Goal: Encourage people to hire an eco-certified pest controller
Audience: Men and women who hire pest control operators for preventive and maintenance spraying
Location: East, Central and South Counties
Barriers: Lack of knowledge or eco-certified pest control and assumption that their pest control company only uses safe chemicals
Motivators: The desire to protect their kids and pets from toxic exposure


Goal: Encourage people to buy a less toxic alternative
Audience: Men who purchase herbicides and women who purchase pesticides
Location: South and West Counties
Barriers: Need an easy and immediate solution to a pest problem and perceive eco-friendly as more expensive and less effective
Motivators: The desire to protect their kids and pets from toxic exposure

It’s a complex campaign with many moving parts. But it’s worth it. Audience segmentation has allowed us to create campaigns that speak to the specific barriers people face when choosing pest control—they all had the same motivation—and generate lasting change.

Protests and Progress: How Action Inspires Change

It’s impossible to tune into the news right now without hearing about the thousands of people across the country who are demonstrating. On so many levels, this is a good thing.

By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the grand jury decisions—one in Missouri, the other in New York—not to indict two white police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men. We could go on for days discussing every tiny bit of information about both cases, but for a moment, let’s focus on the reaction: protests. People have channeled their disbelief, anger, frustration and fear into action.

Action is a powerful antidote to fear, and it’s an essential component of behavior change. When we listen to the news, we take in a lot of scary information. From climate change and terrorism to racism and poverty, we can easily become overwhelmed and paralyzed by problems too big for any one of us to solve on our own. As a result, many people shut down or deny the problems exist altogether.

But when highly fearful information is coupled with a plan of action, suddenly we have a way to alleviate the sense of danger. Empowerment replaces denial and hope overtakes desperation. We’ve seen this time and again in community-based social marketing campaigns.

Say I created a recycling campaign that informed people that every day the US generates enough trash to fill 63,000 garbage trucks, and left it at that. It’s a pretty staggering fact and it would likely cause shock, fear for the future, powerlessness and ultimately shut down. But if I also told them how they could reduce their trash by drinking from reusable cups, recycling everything possible and starting a compost pile, I would give them something to do. And that action has the power to overcome the fear and helplessness and create lasting behavior change.

The grand jury decisions are a lot like the 63,000 garbage trucks full of trash for many people. The peaceful protests and demonstrations (not the looting kind) are inspiring, because people have joined forces to confront their fear and plant the seeds for real change.

Why Free is the Enemy of Change

Everyone loves free stuff. We’re culturally wired toward getting something for nothing. And marketers know it. Order now and receive two free months! Free shipping! Buy one, get one FREE! The lure of free is a powerful and universal motivation to buy.

At SGA, our marketing isn’t focused on selling air conditioners or getting people to drink more soda. We set out to change the way people behave in a lasting way that will benefit the planet. Our method is called community-based social marketing, and while its end is lofty, we’re not above using a few freebies to get people there.

That’s because one of the main principles of behavior change is reciprocity. Basically, people feel indebted to someone who does or gives something to them. Hand out t-shirts at an environmental expo, and people will be more likely to listen to your recycling message and even recycle more at home.

Freebies do work—to a point.They’re more of an icebreaker than a closer. To bring about lasting change, you need people to invest in an action. Studies show that while we love free, we value what we’ve purchased. Let’s give an example. Say I save up to buy a vintage cake stand (that’s a hint, Santa Claus). To me and most people, the cost of the cake stand gives it worth. Choosing and purchasing that cake increases its value in my eyes and ups my commitment to using it and treating it well.

The same logic goes for environmental tools. It would be great to give away low-flow toilets to every resident of a city. But the better way to get people engaged in water conservation would be to sell the toilets at a highly discounted price. Homeowners would feel that they’re getting a deal—which satisfies the love of free—while still requiring them to invest a little cash and show commitment.

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.

4 Effective Ways to Persuade People


In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need persuasion. You would simply point out a few facts and people would do the right thing. Litterbugs would learn that 80% of the trash floating around in our oceans starts on land, and just like that, they’d never toss another gum wrapper on the sidewalk.

But it’s not a perfect world. And getting people to actually change requires finesse. The ultimate goal of every SGA marketing campaign is behavior change, so we’ve become pretty savvy on the best ways to get people to act differently.  Whether you’re trying to save the planet, convince your boss to kick in for a raise or persuade your sister to watch your dogs for the weekend, these four techniques will help you get results. Continue reading “4 Effective Ways to Persuade People”

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!

Continue reading “Dude, Where’s My Bag?”